Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They’re not John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. But their marvelous performances in La La Land will remind you of those famous teams as they bring to the screen something magical. The singing and dancing are terrific, but it’s La La Land’s love story that carries the film.
Stone’s Mia is an aspiring actress who spends her days as a barista on the Warner Brothers lot, handing out lattés to the stars. Gosling’s Sebastian is a jazz musician who dreams of opening his own place, but pays the rent as a restaurant pianist. Their situations are sure to resonate with millennials, many of whom are underemployed in hum-drum jobs while continuing to pursue their dreams. In that respect, the film delivers a positive message – hold onto those aspirations.
The film gets off to an exuberant start with an opening that channels Grease. Stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway, motorists exit their cars onto the highway and dance (really dance, with flips, twirls, jumps and other acrobatic feats) while belting out a tribute to L.A., “Another Day of Sun.” Damien Chazelle, the film’s director, writer, and choreographer, shoots this dance number, and others throughout the film, in one long take, something we haven’t seen since the days of Astaire and Gene Kelly. Without taking breaks, the pressure is on the actors; Gosling and Stone rise to the occasion. Besides the dancing, Gosling’s skills on the piano (these segments are also shot without a break), are impressive. (Gosling learned to play jazz piano in a short space of time, much to the amazement of co-star John Legend.)
When those cars finally get moving, Sebastian honks at Mia and gets an obscene gesture in return. The second meeting is just as bad, but we know that sooner or later these two are destined to become a couple. Getting there is half the fun, with several dance numbers that are totally enjoyable while also advancing the story line.
Mia ditches dinner with her boyfriend, an arrogant corporate type, to join Sebastian at the theater. Together they watch Rebel with a Cause, one of several nods to classic Hollywood. The attraction between Mia and Sebastian builds slowly, lending a sweetness to their courtship, especially in their duet, “City of Stars.”
On the career side, we witness the frustrations for both Mia and Sebastian as the cards seem to be stacked against them. During one audition, Mia delivers a heartfelt performance, her eyes welling up, while the casting director takes calls and then quickly dismisses her. Sebastian is fired from his restaurant gig for playing jazz rather than traditional Christmas music. (The boss is played by J.K. Simmons, who won an Academy Award for his performance in Whiplash, also directed by Chazelle.)
Opportunities soon arrive, although not the ones Mia and Sebastian were expecting. Keith (Legend) taps Sebastian for his band. Despite Keith’s success, his choice of music, along with the band’s hectic touring schedule, creates a dilemma for Sebastian. Mia accuses him of selling out, abandoning his dream to settle for a well-paying job. She’s determined to pursue hers, renting out a theater to put on her one-woman play. Failing to fill the seats, she’s on the hook for the rental with nothing to show for her efforts – or so she thinks.
Stone’s expressive face is a joy to watch, particularly in one of the last scenes when she sings her way through an audition with “The Fools Who Dream.” She doesn’t have Barbra Streisand’s voice, but the emotion she shows in that performance reminded me of “My Man,” the final song in Funny Girl. It was a goose-bump movie moment. Gosling, too, is an irresistible presence on screen. He can, of course, act, as we’ve seen in so many of his past films. But watching him morph into a musical star is thrilling.
Will La La Land be an anomaly for Hollywood? Or will we see more original musicals? We can only hope.
Photo credit: Dale Robinette courtesy of Lionsgate