The following is my love letter to Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
Musicals are as old as time. They can be timeless and they could also be some of the most amazing displays of choreography, lighting and set design moreso than any other genre of film. There are those who state outright that they despise musicals and those that can’t stop gushing over them. I am neither. I have seen many musicals that I simply unabashedly loved (Singin’ in the Rain, Chicago) and some where I was bored out of my mind (Rent). More often than not, a well-produced musical is just about the best kind of experience you can have in the theatre because when everything comes together, it is just magical.
This is one of those musicals. When I heard about this movie sweeping awards season early on and then dominating at the Golden Globes, I was still somewhat skeptical about seeing the movie. I wasn’t sure if it would live up to all the hype surrounding it and I was very glad when I left the theatre that my worries were all for nothing. This movie is wonderful. Where to even begin? There is a line in the film where Keith (played by John Legend) tells Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) that he admires these old jazz musicians but as he remains a traditionalist in the realm of this musical genre, he fails to realize that these old jazz singers made it big because they themselves were NOT traditionalists. In a sense, he says that you can keep the tradition but update it with a modern style at the same time. That pretty much explains the film.
The film concerns the story of two people: one is aspiring actress Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), a down-on-her-luck woman who still has some optimism and a sharp wit despite being turned down during multiple auditions and working in a coffee shop on the Warner lot just to be closer to the stars. The other is jazz musician Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), a man who sees himself as a serious musician but often is forced to have to perform upbeat Christmas songs in restaurants or covering 80s tunes at garden parties. When these two meet, they quickly discover their similar career and life trajectories and attempt to help each other with their respective goals. What follows is a tale of music, life and finding one’s true self while balancing between your personal and professional life while attempting to not compromise one’s own morals.
You could say that the movie is a love letter to old-timey musicals like some of the ones I mentioned at the beginning of this review as we have big, brassy musical numbers, a traditional (well, not entirely) love story between two beautiful people and exciting choreography. The world that the characters inhabit though is that of a very modern one. This movie takes place in the current time frame but yet Gosling’s world is very minimalist and retro while Stone’s is more akin to a modern setting. The way in which director Damien Chazelle creates these ideas are mesmerizing to say the least. The choreography, for one, is different than some musicals. Sure, we get the big dance moves and perfectly-timed sequences but something else happens: we see our dancers. We see their entire bodies moving, we see their faces while their feet are tapping away and we get long, unbroken takes of these scenes where you would normally see a very fast-paced editing style.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone completely light up the screen every time they appear, of course. Both performers have the most wonderful chemistry together because this is their third film together where they have portrayed lovers. You naturally want them to get together and work everything out and both are quintessential “movie stars,” which in itself is a throwback to the older days of Hollywood when that moniker had more meaning behind it. Stone and Gosling are both able to respectively show a certain sadness behind their eyes. You notice that with Stone in particular in scenes where she auditions for various projects. In one, for example, she auditions and performs a very emotional scene before an assistant cuts in during the middle of it and asks what the casting director wants for lunch. In another, the casting director doesn’t even look up from her cell phone. You can see it with Gosling too as despite his description of being a “respected musician,” he is relegated to playing Christmas songs in a restaurant for a cantankerous boss (J.K. Simmons in a very brief role). The only time he is truly happy is when he is playing what he wants to play or whenever he meets up with Stone’s character. These two are basically the meat and potatoes of the whole movie but I have to give kudos to musician John Legend as well, who shows up for a brief solid performance but also contributes a wonderful song to the already-terrific soundtrack.
The musical numbers are also fantastic. The movie openly references other classic films like Rebel Without a Cause and Casablanca and there is even one particular moment where the film reel featuring the latter movie burns and interrupts one of the first romantic moments between the lead couple. However, this also leads to one of the best sequences I’ve seen in quite some time as both Gosling and Stone head to a museum and engage in a beautiful number among the stars. Every single song/performance and choreographed move is memorable. Everything resonated with me. It was all just so, so gorgeous. I LOVED IT ALL.
In short, go see this film soon before it leaves theatres and you live in a world where you haven’t seen La La Land. I think we can agree on that being one scary world.
* (Brutal; the worst rating)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)