Movie Review: La La Land

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in a lush new kind of movie musical.


La La Land

Damien Chazelle's La La Land takes the standard objection to movie musicals—Why are all these people suddenly bursting into song?—and confronts it head-on in its opening scene. We see one of those from-here-to-the-horizon traffic jams on an L.A. freeway, with trapped motorists muttering in the sun. Then one woman starts singing. Then she's joined by others as they climb out of their cars and begin dancing around and on top of them. Why are they doing this? Well, when they allow the director to pack so much intricate Steadicam invention and sky-high musical energy into a single six-minute take, why should they not?

The movie is high on the spirits of classic Hollywood musicals (especially of the Gene Kelly variety) and subsequent French riffs on the form by Jacques Demy (in whose 1967 The Young Girls of Rochefort Kelly also featured). The picture is set in the here and now, but it feels very much like the there-and-then.

That tuneful traffic nightmare at the beginning introduces us to the lead characters, already getting on each other's nerves. Purist jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is honking his horn behind aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone). When the jam breaks and he pulls around her car, glowering, she gives him the finger. Later, when he comes into the coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot where Mia unhappily slaves, her presence doesn't even register with him. Later still, she comes upon Sebastian in a lounge where he's glumly playing background piano; when the manager (J.K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for his jazzman in Chazelle's Whiplash) fires him for slipping an original tune into his set, Sebastian leaves in a huff, brushing past Mia with no recognition.

Clearly, these two are meant to be together, and Chazelle, who also wrote the script, isn't going to stand in their way. Since both characters are a little beaten-down—Mia by endless rounds of humiliating acting auditions, Sebastian by his inability to land a dignified gig ("I'm letting life hit me until it gets tired," he says)—the director surrounds them with spectacular song-and-dance scenes that rise up out of the story like exhalations of pure joy. In one of them, getting ready for a party at the house they share, Mia and her three roommates negotiate the complex arrangement of a song called "Someone in the Crowd" as if it were not at all incredibly difficult to do; then they march it out into the street. It's a sequence that recalls any number of other classic musicals, but also feels classic in its own right.

The movie's first real show-stopper, though, is a twilight scene, set to a song called "A Lovely Night," in which Sebastian and Mia tentatively come together, protesting all the way. ("You're not the type for me," he sings. "I'm frankly feeling nothing," she insists). The setting is an overlook high above L.A., with the city spread out below like a field of stars. Gosling nudges things off with a casual lamppost swing (the famous Gene Kelly move from Singin' in the Rain), then joins Stone for a nifty little sitting-on-a-bench dance, then a bit of tap-and-slide—and by then, like them, you're hooked: the movie's lush and unblushing romanticism has drawn you in.

Linus Sandgren's cinematography wraps the movie in swooning atmosphere: the interiors have a warm, pulsing glow, and the exteriors appear to have been shot in some sort of perpetual, salmon-skied Golden Hour—especially the scene in which Gosling strolls the Hermosa Beach Pier singing a melancholy ballad called "City of Stars." (The movie's original songs are mostly by composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.)

We know that love has taken hold when Sebastian and Mia duck into an old-fashioned movie theater to catch a showing of the 1955 Rebel Without a Cause. We see their fingers intertwining in the dark, and then watch as they make their way up to the Griffith Observatory—site of one of Rebel's most famous scenes—where they begin to dance, and Sebastian lifts Mia up and she slowly floats away. Soon they're both dancing on clouds, silhouetted among the stars. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think only a puppy-kicker could fail to be moved by Chazelle's imagery here.

Another knockout scene—for different reasons—is the one in which Mia is braving her way through a new audition, this one for a movie role, improvising a story from her childhood for a small audience of evaluators. As the lights dim down, Stone sings the tale (she sang it live on set, straight through) and slowly, smashingly enlarges upon its meaning. It's a spellbinding performance.

Things perk along nicely for Sebastian and Mia—they really were made for each other, evidently. But what would a story like this be without complications? (One of them involves John Legend, in a strong turn as Sebastian's friend Keith, a more-successful fellow musician.) The last third of the film takes some unexpected turns, but the movie's romantic spell never lifts. And it's a tribute to Chazelle's distinctive talent that he's able to fashion the ending—which might have sunk a less meticulously crafted film—into the picture's most moving moment.

NEXT: Friday Funnies: Castro's Funeral

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  1. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone

    You’ve got my attention…

    in a lush new kind of movie musical

    And it’s gone.

  2. I used to hate musicals. Still do. But that one with 76 trombones was actually likeable, and I always got a kick out of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Not Fred by hisself or with some dame half his age. Never liked Gene Kelly; he made it look hard while Fred made it look like anyone could do it.

    So …. mebbe

    1. I like the old MGM musicals. They demonstrate real craftsmanship from a period where movies were unabashedly escapist fantasies rather than often plodding attempts at social commentary.

      I think once in a while it’s refreshing to have a move earnestly and unabashedly be romantic and silly. That said I’m sure in real life I’d hate the two lead characters in this movie.

      1. I’m sure in real life I’d hate the two lead characters in this movie.

        Especially if they’re constantly breaking out into song and dance routines for no reason whatsoever. I don’t even like it when people sing along to the radio. “Just STFU and listen to someone who can actually carry a tune, unlike you, you talent-less loser.”

    2. Talking about making it look easy Ginger did everything Fred did, backwards and in heels!

  3. How about a review of that new movie about the brave lobbyist who takes on the murderous monsters in the gun lobby?

    1. That looks hilarious. I’m hoping Garvin addresses that instead of the new Hulu show or something.

  4. The setting is an overlook high above L.A., with the city spread out below like a field of stars. Gosling nudges things off with a casual lamppost swing (the famous Gene Kelly move from Singin’ in the Rain), then joins Stone for a nifty little sitting-on-a-bench dance, then a bit of tap-and-slide?and by then, like them, you’re hooked: the movie’s lush and unblushing romanticism has drawn you in.

    Given the climate of how movies are made today (everything is either a gritty reboot, a smug, ironically humored action/superhero movie, or a found footage horror film) that strikes me as pretty audacious. And from the clips I’ve seen it looks like this movie doesn’t suffer from Baz Luhrmann-style ADHD where the camera is flying around and every shot cuts after 3 seconds.

  5. My favorite musical: Little Shop of Horrors.

    1. Close second: Nightmare Before Christmas

    2. Does Blues Brothers count as a musical?

      1. what, two former convict brothers on a mission from god that are chased by a crazed girlfriend and escape lynching from a small-town country audience and a group of neo-nazis only to be caught by the illinois law enforcement community after a concert with ray charles to raise money for an orphanage turns into a high speed police chase across the streets of chicago?

        actually, sounds about as crazy as any musical i’ve heard

    3. A list of neither beginning nor endings:

      1. The Newsies

      2. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog

      3. 90’s Disney movies

      4. The musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

      5. Pitch Perfect

      6. Moulin Rouge

    1. me too, needed fava beans and a nice chianti though…

  6. “especially of the Gene Kelly”

    Gene Kelly was one of the few people who could dance in a musical and not seem effeminate.

    Making men seem effeminate is one of the reasons the musical died.

    I mean, it was about a broader tendency towards realism, as well–but making men seem like real men was part of that.

    You could see the trend coming, when the musicals themselves were about women like Julie Andrews. Mary Poppins was about women and children. The Sound of Music was about women and children.

    Nobody sings “How Do You Solve a Problem like Georg?” unless you want everyone to think he’s gay.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    1. You could see the trend coming, when the musicals themselves were about women like Julie Andrews.

      And men like Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. (Seriously: see Paint Your Wagon.)

      1. “It earned $31.6 million over its release, although the earnings never offset the cost of production and marketing.” Paint_Your_Wagon_(film)

        Do you consider Paint Your Wagon to have been a success?

        At any rate, you’ll find exceptions, but musicals ain’t what they used to be after the mid to late ’60s.

        Cabaret was successful, but I’d hardly call it an example of manly men doing musicals.

        All that Jazz was successful, but it was more like a film with dream sequences.

        Chicago was successful, but it was all about women, too.

        1. Success, not particularly. But that’s more due to it’s excesses rather than being insufficiently gay. Here’s one with four guys that made a tidy profit: John, Paul, George & Ringo in A Hard Days Night (yes, that’s a musical). You might not think they were very manly, but the screaming teenage girls disagreed.

          Musicals and movies weren’t what they used to be after the mid to late 60’s, but then neither was Broadway — Sound of Music was Rogers and Hammerstein’s last show. The number of all broadway shows plummeted in the 1970’s, and that meant less source material for Hollywood, which, after Easy Rider, wasn’t interested in sweeping technicolor fantasy, much, anyway. Hollywood wanted to be all gritty, realistic, and dark in the ’70’s.

          Broadway style music (and dance) diverged widely from pop music of the period as well. In the 40’s or 50’s a showtune on the radio wasn’t that rare and top stars of the day, like Sinatra, did musicals. In the 70’s popular radio meant rock and Sondheim or Lloyd Webber didn’t much make the cut (a few songs from Hair got radio play, but the musical didn’t get made until years later.)

          1. Even Disney animationcut the songs down or out entirely. (Remember those rousing numbers from Great Mouse Detective or Black Cauldron?). You would think if the problem was that musicals were about women and children that wouldn’t have happened.

            They did still manage to pump out a few musicals that made bank anyway in the 70’s & 80’s — Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease (believe it or not, at the time Travolta seemed straight), The Blues Brothers (Aretha Franklin busting out in song in a diner? Yeah, it’s a musical), Fame.

            When musical style finally made a return to film in the ’80s it returned as a hybrid — people didn’t burst into song anymore, the soundtrack did, in sync with the on screen action. Look at the mixed styles of Footloose (with Kevin Bacon dancing his feet off) or Flashdance (they didn’t dump a water tank on a backlit Jennifer Beals for the edification of women and children in the audience). Movies had to catch up with MTV (when it still had music videos). And then, finally, Disney brought the animated musical back.

            Today, movies that want to make money are all franchise tentpoles and super heroes don’t sing and dance. The musical moved to television. Who knows, with hip hop on Broadway, maybe a Hamilton The Musical movie could revitalize the form. I don’t bet on that, but not because a singing and dancing Hamilton looks too gay.

  7. Incidentally, I’m not gay, but I am an opera fan.

    For whatever reason, the question of why everyone is singing everything disappears very quickly in opera.

    It may be because of the weighty subject matter. It’s often not about an Italian guy falling in love with a Puerto Rican girl while his fellow gang members dance their way through a gang fight in the background.

    Adult themes, maybe. Childishness comes across as effeminate–for whatever reason. I’m not saying that’s the way it should be; I’m saying that’s the way it is. I don’t know. Somebody tell me. Why do some gay guys talk with a lisp?

    What’s that about? And why are so many gay guys into musical theater? Does it have nothing whatsoever to do with guys dancing and singing and being openly effeminate?

    1. Just come out of the closet already.

  8. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think only a puppy-kicker could fail to be moved by Chazelle’s imagery here.

    You’re wrong. I’m not a puppy kicker, but this sounds like a bunch of overly sentimental schlock to me.

    *kicks puppy*

    Wait a tick…

    1. If we’re going to have a nostalgia fit, I would rather go see a movie where the lead character drinks, smokes, juggles, kicks dogs, and hates babies.

      Ah yass, the days when Hollywood was more than just PC and gay.

  9. I’m just happy that someone had the courage to do something different, and to keep alive a venerable art form that can be very beautiful and moving.

    I have a thing for sentimentality and nostalgia. I’ve noticed that tap-dancing is making somewhat of a comeback, and that makes me happy too.

    So yeah, I admit it. I like musicals. I’m looking forward to seeing this movie. Although the floating in the clouds may be a bit much for me.

  10. Also, talk about a change of pace for Chazelle! Whiplash was an awesome movie. It had characters so driven that their brutality was always just under the surface.

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