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Movie Review: #LaLaLand

The beautiful, sweet, and hopeful La La Land is also clever and absolutely absorbing.

Review by Matt Cummings

There's a moment near the end of Damien Chazelle's musical La La Land where we learn the bitter price that sometimes comes with Hollywood fame, as if life itself can separate even genuine love when dreams get in the way. That uncommon theme is brilliantly portrayed here, prodding its audience through song and dance to take an unrestrained and thoroughly enjoyable journey through what can only be described as the nightmare that makes up the Hollywood System.

For jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), the dream of owning an old-school jazz club is assaulted daily as he's forced to plink out holiday music at a darkened restaurant, all while the meany boss (JK Simmons) reminds him to keep the jazz riffs outside. When Sebastian strays too far outside the lines, he's fired but not before the struggling actress/barista Mia (Emma Stone) catches his playing while walking home. Their first (and then second) meetings are a disaster, as the two musically ponder why they're even in the same room together. But as the seasons pass, their affection for one another begins to grow. Sebastian pushes Mia to write and perform her dream of a one-woman show, while he lands a steady gig with a popular band (led by John Legend). The long months of touring begin to test the couple's love for each other, forcing each to decide whether career and relationship can co-exist. The result might see them become the thing they hate the most - the sellout - just as both of their prospects begin to blossom.

It's safe to say that I loved La La Land, both for its electric performances and for the chemistry which its leads so electrically display. This is Gosling and Stone's third movie together (they've also starred in Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad), and have become a lot like Bogart/Bacall were in the 40's, except Gosling and Stone are definitely not Bogart and Becall. Still, their respect for one another is infectious, and I found myself tapping my feet often, swooning to their dance moves, and empathizing with their plights when the film turns decidedly dark. Both of them are a bit shy in their singing, with Stone getting the better half there and Gosling's stellar piano playing (which he learned in just three months) earning our praise as well. La La Land takes us through a musical journey of their lives, from enduring LA traffic to questioning why they're even in the same room together.

Chazelle amazed me with last year's biting Whiplash, and in La La Land he uses similar unconventional tropes to lull us into a heartbreaking ending. It seems that Chazelle (as both writer and director) understands the human condition, that not all things turn out the way we dream of them, even when those ends turn out to be pretty good. Had the two never met, we would have cheered the duo for realizing some version of their dreams. But on the way to a powerhouse ending of music, silhouetted dance, and a menagerie of "what-could-have-been" cut scenes, we also have a moment to shed tears because those dreams have come at a price. That's a great way to tell a story, along with La La Land's two beautifully memorable songs.

The first - City of Stars - is lovingly sung by our couple in their apartment, complete with karaoke styling and laughter, as if these two are truly enjoying the experience of performing for the camera. And then there's the terrific Epilogue that draws our movie to a close, which brings our couple full circle. It encompasses all the various emotions of the movie, from flirty to melancholy, reminding us of the power behind music's ability tell a story. It's a dying element in film-making, much like Sebastian's reluctance to admit that jazz itself is undergoing radical changes in today's scene. La La Land both broadens our scope of understanding while killing us with its inconvenient truths. Some might claim that the tonal changes which happen in Act 2 are jarring, but it's an important element in concluding this story. In the 40's/50's, our characters would have lived a happier-ever-after ending, but I like Chazelle's decision to go more realistic. It's bold and uncompromising in this way, and I think a more 'Hollywood Ending' might not be applicable to modern sensibilities.

And yet even with all of my accolades, it's possible that La La Land might not be for you. If you hate singing and dancing on a scale just below 2012's Les Miserables, I'd say you're in for a long evening. In addition, early critical praise for La La Land was due largely to those who love this sort of thing, and that if that isn't necessarily you (or you think critics like me are usually off-base), then you might wish to wait until it arrives on the various streaming services. But I hope you instead take a chance on seeing this in a theater, not because the experience is unlike anything you've ever seen, but because it's a moment to relish a more glorious time in filmmaking, when characters suddenly burst into song and dance while learning the cost of true love or career happiness. Along the way, I'll bet you'll hear more than just your foot tapping, and isn't that a wonderful element to share in a darkened space?

I've actually heard some moviegoers bitterly complain that La La Land's story of "rags to riches at a price" plot is unrealistic and therefore unworthy of your time. That's neither accurate nor fair for a film that largely doesn't care what we think, sending its cast on a soul-soaring musical adventure that also feels deeply personal. That sort of musical middle finger is exactly what we need right now, and it makes La La Land a shoe-in for Oscar praise. Whether it stands the test of time like those films it lovingly remembers is beyond our abilities, but I hope you will take a moment to judge that for yourself.

La La Land is rated PG-13 for some language and has a runtime of 128 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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