Believe the buzz. La La Land IS the best movie of 2016. It’s certainly my top pick for top honors in the Oscar pool. But here’s the twist. I had to see it twice to fully appreciate the story and the spectacle. The first time I saw it was at the Middleburg Film Festival in October, in cramped seats in a hotel ballroom. About a month later, I saw it again – on a big screen, in a real theater, with a good sound system. And I was hooked. It doesn’t fit neatly into any particular genre. It’s part musical, part drama, part comedy, part fantasy, part romance… all packaged together in a unique, thought-provoking, entertaining and bittersweet film about dreams, relationships, and the paths taken – or not taken – in life.
La La Land stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as Mia and Sebastian, a couple of romantics with big dreams. She’s an aspiring actress who works as a barista on the Warner Brothers lot while rushing from one soul-crushing audition to the next. He’s a dedicated jazz pianist who takes soul-crushing gigs at cocktail lounges and pool parties until he can open his own jazz club someday. The two meet in cute Hollywood fashion, do a little tap dance around their mutual attraction, and then fall in love as one season rolls into the next. Stone and Gosling have worked together before – in the 2011 romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love and the 2013 crime drama Gangster Squad. They share an obvious chemistry that makes their on-screen relationship feel real and relatable, even when they’re called upon to break into song, or perform a gravity-defying dance number at the Griffith Observatory. You can’t help but root for the pair as they struggle to pursue their dreams and preserve their relationship. If only it were so simple. But alas, life is complicated. And so is love. Will Mia and Seb get their happily-ever-after? No spoilers here.
La La Land is written and directed by Damien Chazelle who wrote and directed one of my favorite movies of 2014, Whiplash. That one also touched on jazz and ambition, but in a small, dark and twisted way. La La Land is a much grander cinematic feat. It pays tribute to Hollywood musicals of old while making the most of its modern setting. The opening scene is an epic, infectious, colorful six-minute dance extravaganza that takes place on a freeway interchange in the middle of a typical L.A. traffic jam, to the tune of “Another Day of Sun.” But don’t be fooled. That jubilant scene does not set the tone for the movie as a whole. The atmosphere ebbs and flows in a number of surprising ways, punctuated by a couple of melancholy, Oscar-worthy earworms, “City of Stars” and “The Fools Who Dream.” La La Land is not a musical in the traditional sense, nor is it a straightforward romantic dramedy. Gosling and Stone aren’t song and dance powerhouses, but their acting chops and chemistry make La La Land the type of movie that should strike a chord with a broad audience, and deserves to be seen on the big screen (at least once).