by Alan Yudman
There wasn’t anything quite like an old school MGM musical. Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Ginger Rogers and Judy Garland (or Shirley Jones or Debbie Reynolds or, well take your pick). Those movies were pure escape. I mean who breaks out in song in the middle of their day. There was nothing real about them, but they were full of heart, humor and mostly really good music. LA LA LAND is a throw back to those classics, but with a modern twist. And it is simply fantastic.
Emma Stone is a struggling actor. Ryan Gosling is a struggling Jazz pianist. They meet angry… twice. Then they meet cute and their romance along with their song and dance are on. But it is more than a vehicle for some really wonderful songs. It is a great story about love, struggle and following your heart even though it may wind up in pieces on the floor.
Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz have been working on the movie for years, ever since they were in college together. But things got serious about 6 years ago when Chazelle began focusing on the screenplay. Hurwitz also became serious about the music and their dream started to take shape. The songs weave naturally through the plot and help tell the story. It’s not exactly natural, but it feels completely right. And those songs are really spectacular. The highlights for me were “City of Stars” and “Audition (Dreams)”. Jazz also plays an important role here. Gosling’s Sebastian is a purist and is married to the traditional jazz he loves. He explains it to Stone’s Mia in such a way that anyone could understand what makes this truly American form so special and lasting. Full disclosure, I am listening to Thelonius Monk as I write this.
Stone and Gosling have an easy chemistry. Wait, that is selling it short. They light up the screen when they are together. By the end of the movie I felt I could sit and watch them sing and dance for another 2 hours. Their banter is natural, their dancing sublime and their singing talents are perfectly suited to the musical. I’m sure this movie would have been perfectly fine with two different actors, but it would have been a totally different experience and most definitely a lesser one.
Chazelle is a wonderful writer and director. He stages the musical numbers beautifully and never loses site of the overall story. He won critical acclaim and several awards for 2014’s WHIPLASH. Those awards and accolades are sure to continue with LA LA LAND. I’m not sure this will revive the classic MGM-style musical. But it surely should give a younger generation an appreciation for those films.
LA LA LAND is simply a wonderful film and could be an Oscar winner come the end of February. It would be a shame if another movie won, because this is a celebration of all things Hollywood and the joy a great movie can bring an audience. And at the end of a tough 2016, we could all use a little LA LA LAND in our lives.