La La Land, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, 2h 8min
La La Land is really two movies in one. The first has a lot of singing and dancing with minimal plot; the second is more dramatic and thoughtful, with better music, less dancing and better acting. I liked the second movie a lot more.
The opening scene is a typical Los Angeles traffic jam, except this one turns into a musical spectacular with the singing drivers dancing across the hoods and roofs of the idled cars. Seems kind of silly, but it gets across the point that LA is different and La La – a little, maybe a lot, nutty.
Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) have a spat when he cuts her off, but they soon drive off. One night, hearing some good piano improv, she ducks into a club. It is Sebastian playing, but he has just been fired for going off the set list and rudely brushes by her. Mia has a waking dream where Sebastian stops and kisses her passionately, but she quickly snaps back to reality. Dreams like this are an important part of the film.
In a third of these somewhat implausible coincidences, Mia and Sebastian find themselves at the same classic Hollywood pool party. There’s a song for Mia while she's dressing, another production number at the party, then then they perform a singing, dancing duet in the Hollywood Hills with the lights of the city glistening in the background.
At this point I’m thinking the music isn’t very memorable and the dancing amateurish. (I do admire Stone and Gosling for doing these scenes themselves, no dubbing, no CGI.) But with Mia and Sebastian established as a couple, the focus shifts to what they will do with their lives. They face a universal dilemma: how much must you sacrifice your instinctual passions to achieve a sustainable, responsible life?
Ryan compromises first, joining a band led by his friend Keith (John Legend) that is more pop than jazz. Mia struggles through film auditions until Sebastian encourages her to write a one-act play for herself.
This is where the film came alive for me. The jazz was more to my liking, and the plot took over. Stone and Gosling make their characters sympathetic, so you are involved in their story. The film becomes about their ambitions and relationship, and how they handle success and failure.
At times it feels like La La Land is a gentle satire of a big studio film with a Hollywood ending. The dream sequence in the final scene is an example. But these are “real” people dealing with the complex issue of reconciling dreams with reality.
There is plenty to admire about La La Land, especially if you appreciate the song and dance numbers more than I did. The Best Picture of the Year? It’s nominated for 14 awards, partly because Hollywood loves nothing more than films about itself. It wouldn't be my choice.