It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.
So says Humphrey Bogart at the end of THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), words that perfectly sum up LA LA LAND (2016), but before you dismiss this uplifting musical from the director of WHIPLASH (2013) and starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as pure happy fluff, there’s another Bogie quote which does this movie even more justice.
From CASABLANCA (1942): We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we— we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
Bogie’s words of wisdom, of course from a script by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, go a long way in understanding and appreciating where the plot of LA LA LAND ultimately goes.
LA LA LAND opens with a spectacular musical dance number on a gridlocked L.A. freeway which hearkens back to the great musicals of yesteryear. In this traffic jam, the paths of two characters, a young actress Mia (Emma Stone) and a jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), cross in a none-too pleasant way.
After this chance meeting, the two characters briefly go their separate ways. Mia works at a coffee shop, struggling to fulfill her dream of becoming an actress, suffering through one brutal audition after another. Sebastian is a jazz musician who dreams of opening his own club but struggles to hold onto any music gigs because he’s frustrated he can’t play the music he really wants to as he’s forced to play fluff and background music rather than true jazz.
When their paths cross again, and later again, Mia and Sebastian finally start paying attention to each other, and a romance blossoms. Not only do they get along wonderfully, but they also inspire each other’s dreams. Sebastian gives Mia the confidence she needs to become a better actress, specifically encouraging her to bypass the awful auditions altogether and to write and star in her own one-woman show instead, while Mia nudges Sebastian towards his dream of running his own club, helping him find at long last a paying gig that will eventually finance his club.
But dreams and reality have a way of butting heads, and to become a success, more often than not sacrifices have to be made, something that Mia and Sebastian discover as they realize that their near-perfect relationship and their dreams of artistic success may be mutually exclusive.
I really really enjoyed LA LA LAND. 2016 has come to a strong close as the last two movies I saw this year, LA LA LAND and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) are among the best movies I saw all year.
First of all, just the energy level alone in LA LA LAND is enough to knock your socks off. Writer/director Damien Chazelle imbues this film with so much oomph, charm, and colorful charisma it’s hard to sit still in the theater. You want to get up and dance.
The musical numbers here are really impressive and hearken back to so many classic musicals. Specifically, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) comes to mind. The number where Stone and Gosling literally float into the air is destined to be a classic.
And since this takes place in Hollywood and is about the whole Hollywood culture, there are plenty of references to classic Hollywood movies, like the aforementioned CASABLANCA. It’s a fabulous script by Chazelle. He creates a heartwarming romance, brilliant and vibrant musical numbers, and a thoughtful intelligent script that doesn’t let its audience down. Chazelle did not win the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for WHIPLASH (2013). He may get another chance with his script for LA LA LAND.
Emma Stone is brilliant as Mia. Hands down, this is the best performance I’ve ever seen her deliver. She enjoys some amazing moments in this movie, moments where she completely nails it, like the excrutiatingly painful audition where she’s brushed off for a phone call, or the hilarious sequence when she spots Sebastian playing with a wedding band.
I always enjoy Ryan Gosling, and he’s great again here as Sebastian. He’s charming, likable, and has a winning sense of humor. Best of all, Gosling makes Sebastian’s idealistic dreamer a person grounded in reality. And that’s what I liked best about Sebastian. Other characters in the film chastize him for being an unrealistic dreamer, but just because he has dreams doesn’t mean he doesn’t possess the ability and wherewithal to achieve them. He does, and he demonstrates this when he helps Mia with her career.
Reportedly Gosling learned how to play the piano for this movie. After several weeks of intense piano lessons, he was able to play for his scenes in LA LA LAND without involving trained musicians for the close-up hand shots. So, even though professionals recorded the music, when you see Gosling playing piano in the film, it’s him, and those are his hands on the keys. Cool!
Gosling and Stone share a wonderful chemistry in LA LA LAND. Theirs is a powerful romance in the classic tradition. There’s not a sex scene in sight, yet the feelings they have for each other come off so strongly that I have to admit, I haven’t been rooting for a movie couple to be together as much as I was for Mia and Sebastian in years.
And LA LA LAND is definitely Gosling’s and Stone’s movie. In spite of a huge cast of dancers and extras, in terms of characters, it’s pretty much Mia and Sebastian, and with Stone and Gosling playing these roles, that’s more than enough.
The music is also wonderful, from the dance numbers to the jazz performances. It’s a lively score by Justin Hurwitz. This is one soundtrack you’ll definitely want to own.
LA LA LAND is an incredibly enjoyable movie, bursting with so much emotion you’ll be hard pressed to keep from applauding, singing along, or even dancing. From the pure happiness of Mia and Sebastian’s early relationship, a truly magical time together, to the concern when their lives reach the point where they question what they are doing, to the inevitable ending which regardless of how you feel about it, ultimately rings true, and for me, that’s all that matters.
I loved LA LA LAND. It’s one of the best movies of the year.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.