Arts movie review

La La Land: a fresh style of musical for the big screen

A realistic love story brought to life through the delightful frivolity of song and dance

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Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in La La Land.
Dale Robinette


La La Land

Directed by Damien Challeze

Starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling

Rated PG-13

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As a Southern California native, I can definitely say that Los Angeles never looked so beautiful as it did in Damien Challeze’s La La Land. The modern musical fills the city with life, even turning a traffic jam (every Angelino’s worst nightmare) into a breathtaking number showcasing the Los Angeles skyline. Each scene is a fresh explosion of color, from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s anti-love song “A Lovely Night,” set against a pink and purple sunset silhouetting the Santa Monica Mountains, to their ethereal dance number literally floating among the stars in the Griffith Observatory’s planetarium. At a certain point, it almost ceases to matter exactly what is happening onscreen; the aesthetics alone are enough to carry the film.

The movie’s plot follows sarcastic, slightly awkward, aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), who has dropped out of college and moved to LA with the hope of breaking into Hollywood. After numerous auditions and rejections, she begins to lose faith. Ryan Gosling’s character, the difficult, cheeky yet passionate Sebastian, is a jazz pianist who came to Los Angeles with his own dream of opening a jazz club to revive the dying art form. And of course, our two characters meet and begin driving each other to follow their dreams above all else. The fabulous Ryan Gosling-Emma Stone chemistry that we’ve come to expect from such films as Crazy, Stupid, Love carries the first half of the film, with their delightfully biting back-and-forth dialogue soon falling away to love.

Despite the astonishing visuals and the amazing chemistry between the actors, the film falls a little flat as a musical. While the film opens in stunning musical fashion with LA residents suddenly skipping out of cars in the midst of particularly bad rush-hour traffic to spring up and dance on their roofs, this effervescent, musical-logic falls away toward the second half of the film. As Mia and Sebastian’s relationship begins to experience some turbulence, the feel-good vibe is tossed aside in favor of more solemn topics. It becomes somewhat difficult to reconcile these two disparate halves. As a lover of musicals, it felt like false advertising for a film of this most charming and illogical of genres to realistically explore the trials of a complicated relationship and the perils of pursuing your dreams.

True musical fans might also be slightly disappointed by the quality of the music and dance. While the Gosling-Stone numbers still deliver that unparalleled swelling of joy that comes with seemingly random outbursts of song and dance, their technical prowess falls short in comparison to such greats as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The use of the actors’ own singing voices also adds to the overall weakness of the film as a musical, changing the songs into simply another way for the characters to express their thoughts and feelings, a heightened form of acting. Alas, the audience does not leave the theater humming any showstoppers from La La Land.

For those who frown upon the illogicalness of random fits of song and dance, La La Land with its mix of the trivial and the real dares to reinvent the musical as a genre. When people think of musicals, they generally think of movies from more than 50 years ago, stars like Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire. La La Land manages to maintain its grounding in classic Hollywood glamor, still giving the audience a taste of the delightful frivolity of musicals, while also conveying a modern, ineffable ease. It mitigates the often-criticized artificiality present in the genre, by adopting the realistic ambiguity of contemporary film. And perhaps, with the tremendous success of the film, La La Land will pave the way for more musicals to bring joy-filling, toe-tapping films to the modern day.