Oh, am I smiling a lot? Does it look like I’m smiling a lot? Maybe that’s because I saw La La Land, a movie that causes perpetual, everlasting smiles and joy; a movie so unhateable it should be used to weed-out psychopaths in our society; a movie so breathtakingly bold, energetic, tender, intoxicating and ambitious it’s impossible to walk out and not feel a greater sense of purpose—that life has a meaning.
In essence, that’s what Land is designed to do: reaffirm why we live for the things we do. It uses the lives of two artists in the artist capital of the world, Los Angeles, to reinforce the spirit of existing with passion, and does so with toe-tapping songs, enthralling choreography and songs so soul-touching they would remind the most cold-hearted, cynical, internet troll that they still have a beating heart.
In fact, it accomplishes this within the first several minutes with a seemingly single-shot dance and song number in the middle of congested L.A. traffic. What a way to open a movie. The camera moves and glides as it follows dancers jumping on cars and twirling on the road with such intricacy it calls to mind 2014s Birdman, a movie that also used a seamless single-shot flow (even though there are noticeable cuts). Director Damien Chazelle demonstrates tremendous skill as a director with just this scene alone, creating such a perfect way to start a movie. Such an opener can easily result in a movie going downhill fast, but this movie doesn’t. Oh no, not even close.
Actually, it continues to go uphill with such an invigorated sense of purpose that it gets to the top of the hill, and has enough energy left to force the Earth to move itself so that more hill can be created for it go up. We see that purpose in the lives of Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist. They’re two artists drawn to each other through their goals and dreams, but not before having a very L.A. confrontation in traffic after the big opener, that is. But Mia is then drawn into a bar where Sebastian is playing the lounge, which he’s fired from for going off the set list of hokey Christmas tunes. He then blasts past Mia when she tries to talk to him, turning the star-crossed-lovers bit on its head. She gets her hilarious revenge though, when she embarrasses him at a party in which he is playing as part of a 80s cover band.
Like I said, not exactly love at first sight style of old-school Hollywood musicals, but when they do fall for each other their quirky, modern banter is accompanied by a stunning song and dance number on top of a hill looking on the city at night. Sebastian is usually seen wearing black and white tap shoes, and Mia, for all reasons relating to pure movie magic, just so happens to have a pair in her purse. The two dance the night away with the precise elegant simplicity of a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers number. Do I have a tear in my eye? I’m sorry, it’s all the dust on this keyboard.
Stone and Gosling have proven a successful pairing before in Crazy, Stupid Love, but this takes their compatibility to a whole new level. The two have similar, charming sense of humors that make for a natural pairing (and plenty of laugh-out-loud scenes) and every second they’re on screen together is just as joy-inducing as the best dance numbers. Their conversations flow with such authenticity, making Chazelle’s script seem improvised and effortless.
The two become a couple after yet another spectacular dance number (fit with a bouncy, playful tune) at the Griffith Observatory, which makes the stars their dance floor. Of course the movie has plenty more examples, but this scene does the best job at showing off David Wasco’s otherworldly production design and Linus Sandgren’s beautiful cinematography. This movie is just as much a technical marvel as it is a musical one, which of course a massive amount of props must be given to composer Justin Hurwitz and songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Whereas most popular movie musicals nowadays are based off stage productions, the three talents have done the unthinkable by creating an irresistible, original catalog of music that’s a mix of old-school and new-school—delightful little tunes and gut-wrenching ballads. I don’t know much about music, but I know when it works.
But this movie is just as much about the trails of being a passionate creative as it is about having passion. Soon compromises must be made for their art, as Sebastian joins a funk/jazz band in order to make some money, while Mia quits her barista job to put on her own one woman show when auditions have amounted to nothing. A rift forms between the two as their priorities are challenged and their love hits a speed bump. However, this movie is an ode to love, joy and boldness, so their split doesn’t remain unhappy for long, when Sebastian forces Mia to not give up on her acting dream by convincing her to do one last audition for a big movie, culminating in the movie’s most triumphant moment.
My heart is racing just describing the movie, but if my mind lingers on any one scene, it’s that of Emma Stone’s tremendous, one-shot take singing the song Audition, which I am officially designating as this generation’s I Dreamed a Dream. All at once heartbreaking and uplifting, it lights a fire underneath all the dreamers, artists and romantics out there who have never had such a powerful anthem for their spirit. Anne Hathaway won an Oscar thanks to her tremendous job with Dream in Les Misérables, and I see no reason why Stone shouldn’t get the same treatment.
Every once in a while we get these odes to old-Hollywood that are brimming with such joy and heart they’re impossible to hate, like 2011s The Artist. But La La Land does so much more by not only embracing the spirit and style of old musicals, but in encompassing the spirit of the dreamers and fools who give up everything to make their dreams a reality. Sensational dance numbers, soon-to-be-classic songs and music, incomparable direction from Chazelle and career best work from Stone and Gosling make up an ode to the lovers and dreamers who listen to their hearts in order to make life have meaning. Who said 2016 had to be for nothing?