LA LA LAND

bobby bachman


 


I hate musicals.

 

I thought that was important to emphasize before anything else. I have never in my life enjoyed musicals as a genre, for completely abstract reasons. Why are you singing when you could just be talking!? Maybe shut up every once and awhile and act with your face, how's that!? The only ones off the top of my head that I wholeheartedly enjoy are Singing in the Rain and American Idiot, the latter only because it's based on an already brilliant Green Day album. The rest, from West Side Story to Chicago, are all repulsive. Never in my life would I imagine myself being able to honestly say, without any sarcasm, that a movie musical based on all the old classics and driven mostly by jazz music would be the greatest film I saw in 2016, but here we are and here it is.

 

Damien Chazelle's La La Land is one of the most irresistible films I've ever seen, perhaps one of the most irresistible ever made. Is there a single person on earth who isn't in love with this movie? How is that possible? How are there people who can, during "City of Stars", look into Mia's (Emma Stone) eyes without welling up at her dedication? What heartless beast could fail to see her desperation to succeed as an actor? If you can resist, you have a stronger will than I; the film is, simply put, beautiful, brilliant, succeeding in being almost everything a movie should be.

 

La La Land is an artist's movie at its core. Like most of our Oscar bait, it tells the story of struggling artists, because those are the people Oscar voters relate to. I'm usually not a fan of such stories, because, while I am something of a struggling artist by some definition, the characters in these movies always seem a little too rich, and their connection to the art seems a bit too shallow. I don't make art because I want to be adored by millions of screaming fans; I do it because that's just what artists do. Movie characters only ever seem to chase superficial success and fanatical praise, and it would have been extremely easy for La La Land to fall into these well-worn tropes, which have nevertheless won great Oscar gold in the past.

 

Take, for example, Birdman, which is about a former movie star trying to regain credibility as an actor. Birdman is a spectacular technical accomplishment and has a lot of brilliant things in it, but the core problem is that Riggan Thomson's (Michael Keaton) need for redemption is too shallow and self-serving to be relatable. Come to think of it, that's how a lot of characters in movie musicals think. Maybe that's why I hate them so much; watch films like Moulin Rouge! or Chicago or Rent and you start to realize how insufferable so many of these characters can get. There's nothing relatable about Roxy Hart from Chicago wanting to be a singer because she doesn't want to be great, she just wants the applause, and the shower of roses.

 

I don't want to sound too negative with all of this; I only mean to say that La La Land, had a lot of obstacles to overcome from the beginning as a movie musical about aspiring stars. Shockingly, it overcomes them beautifully. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) doesn't play jazz because he wants to be famous. He plays it because he likes playing it, and he dreams not of superstardom, but of owning a club where he can play every night. The movie makes it abundantly clear that Sebastian would continue playing this music with or without applause. He's just an enthusiast, and that's what most artists are. Damien Chazelle gets it.

 

Also, let's not forget that both Gosling and Stone are talented! I don't know whether his piano parts are dubbed in, but either way, Gosling sounds like a seasoned virtuoso. Stone, who apparently trained in tap dancing in her youth, gets plenty of chances to show off as well. In her first major musical, this is the first time I've ever heard her sing, and I was bracing my ears for impact at the start of her first song, but she was beautiful. She doesn't sound like a veteran singer like in most musicals, but she isn't required to be. Her voice strikes a deep, purely emotional impact. It is so refreshing and so sincere in every word that she, with just one film, puts herself alongside the all-time greats.

 

It helps that she has such good songs to sing. The songs, written by Justin Hurwitz, are spectacular, beautiful, elegant, old-timey and somehow refreshingly new. Some of the best scenes don't have any words in them. Most of the songs don't advance the plot, as songs in musicals traditionally do. Instead, these musical interludes set a mood and create an emotion so potent that a set of written words could never do it justice. That's part of why I'm not going to reveal too much of the plot. This movie isn't about plot but feelings. La La Land exists in a realm beyond plot, in the same place where all the greatest music exists: deep in the soul where words mean nothing.

 

There are a few scenes that veer into maudlin. This is typical of movies about struggling artists. At times, the film tries a bit too hard to be poetic and non-conformist. For example, there's a scene where Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) tries to get his job back at a fancy restaurant, and is told by his boss (J.K. Simmons) to stick to the Christmas songs. He starts improvising again, which is what got him fired initially, and gets fired again. I understand the point here: he was fired for trying to play real art. Let's be serious, though. Is there a single fancy restaurant owner in the world that wouldn't want their musician playing elegant jazz? There's a slightly unrealistic opening scene too, a bombastic stereotypical musical number on a crowded highway, but that one is too much fun to criticize.

 

Even as we see Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) become the star keyboard player for John Legend's band (yes, that John Legend), the film belongs to Mia (Emma Stone). It belongs to her aspirations towards acting, her ambition, her desperation, and the way Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) brings out the best in her. She has a drive to be a true artist, to make something worth remembering, and, in the end, it is this love for the craft that inspires her to do what's necessary to achieve success. Sebastian might call it selling out, but Mia's particular brand of selling out pays off with a fancy house, a handsome husband, a beautiful child, and celebrity.

 

Even after all the joy and disappointment and heartbreak, nothing in the world can prepare you for the climax. For the last fifteen or twenty minutes, La La Land becomes something of a fantasy, a study of dreams never pursued, a heartbreaking examination of missed opportunities that, even with the specifics of the story, is so universal that literally anyone could relate. The end sequence is not a plot twist as much as an extension of the story's emotions, an ending that completely forgets the plot and dabbles into a literal depiction of the overthinking we're all known to indulge in. This is a feeling I know everyone watching can relate to.

 

Movies don't usually fill me with as much joy as La La Land, and that is what makes it so special. The truth is that I'm not reacting to anything objective; many critics would disagree, but sometimes a film fills me with a feeling that is impossible to describe, as if I've been taught a valuable lesson about life and existence that can't be put into words. La La Land is about that magical feeling of somehow being able to understand life better. If you're the type of filmgoer who looks for visceral, emotional experiences in the theater as opposed to purely objective qualities, this is the film for you. It's electrifying, sitting in a theater watching something this fun. If it were still playing, I would've seen it at least four more times.

 

View trailer of La La Land



Robert "Bobby" Bachman is a Sophomore at Cabrini. An English Major with a Concentration in Film & Media Studies, he aspires towards being a filmmaker with the fame of Steven Spielberg and the emotional, avant-garde instincts of Paul Thomas Anderson. Or maybe just having a few slices of pizza and writing a story would be all right.