There is a great issue with writing out a list of your favorites of any given thing. Whether it be your favorite meals, songs, books, or movies, you always work from a reservoir of knowledge limited by whatever exposure and understanding you have of that thing. When writing about your favorite Queen songs, you can very much say that “We Will Rock You” is your favorite and not be wrong, but what if you’ve never heard “Radio GaGa,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” or another of their countless classic songs? The same can be said of writing about your favorite films from any given year. I’m usually hesitant to engage in such lists as I never get to see all of the films that I want to and therefore am at a disadvantage of writing a list that I know will change.
At the beginning of the month I wrote a short summary of my favorite films from 2016 (of the films I had seen, of course). It would seem that I had spoken too soon, as last night I found myself enraptured by a very special film: La La Land. This film’s director is mostly known for his 2014 breakout hit Whiplash, which won three Oscars at the 2015 Award Ceremony. That film, which I have not seen for some inexplicable reason, was apparently a very heavy and dark film (and surprisingly bloody). Chazelle’s followup film, La La Land could not be any different, I would suspect. The film follows two main characters, Sebastian (Gosling), a jazz pianist, and Mia (Stone), an actress/barista, as their lives intertwine, they share dreams, fall in love, and move on with life. But this story is filtered through the lens of a 1950s technicolor musical. At times it has it class and demeanor of a Fred Astaire movie, but at other times has the frivolity and gaiety of a Gene Kelly movie. La La Land is part Top Hat (1935, dir. Mark Sandrich) and part Singin in the Rain (1952, dir. Stanley Donen), but at the same time very modern and slick in its handling of the genre. The camera whirls around via whip-pans and digital effects in order to create the sense of single-take musical numbers that move through cars, hoards of people, and over city skylines.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone work wonders in their roles and have a great amount of chemistry on screen. Gosling seems, at first, a bit stiff in his role, but we quickly realize it is his character. At one point Sebastian describes why jazz music is important and Mia simply stares at him: “But it’s just background music!” she says. “People just talk over it at parties.” By the end of the film, however, she is a jazz convert, which is a character change that is fun to watch. Mia, being an actress, of course dreams of getting her big break and her life simply moves between the cafe she works at and the auditions she attends. Sebastian has dreams of opening a jazz club called “Chicken on a Stick” because of the nickname of a jazz musician he admires. Mia hates the name and insists the club should be called “Seb’s” — with a music note instead of an apostrophe, by the way. Their first date consists of going to see Rebel Without a Cause (1955, dir. Nicholas Ray), a movie Mia references without having ever seen. The film bursts into flames in the projector just as they are about to kiss, ruining their special romantic moment. But this is followed by a visit to a conservatory and a literal dance through the stars. It’s a wonderful moment that seems torn straight from Singin’ in the Rain. A later sequence, in which all of the sets and props are made of brightly colored cardboard, is also reminiscent of Singin’ in the Rain and even An American in Paris (1951, dir. Vincente Minnelli).
The story is well-told, charming as all get out, and completely deserving of the praise being hoisted upon it. The singing is all grand, the music is terrific, and all of the acting is top-notch. The first, perhaps twenty minutes of the film, is a bit uninteresting, admittedly, as the film focuses on side characters in its musical numbers that add very little to the story. The musical numbers during that portion of the film are good, but they do not drive the story in a satisfactory way. The musical and dance numbers throughout the remainder of the film all help the story and move out of the character’s emotions and relationship. But this opening act of the film, wherein the plot meanders as it tries to bring Mia and Sebastian together, is really the only place the film falters. Even in its stranger moment (for instance, Mia and Sebastian literally dancing through the stars) it simply feels as though the characters have stepped into one of the films they so greatly admire.
La La Land is fantastic. If you like musicals then you should go see it. In a time when most of the films being produced and distributed by the major studios are faceless monstrosities designed to sell comic books and action figures, La La Land manages to be an actual movie. It’s not trying to sell you anything. It’s just trying to entertain you and maybe remind you why you like movies in the first place.