Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Land’ is an entertaining and engaging love letter to movies, jazz, Los Angeles and love itself

December 27, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 27, 2016

Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is an utterly charming romance about star-crossed lovers in Los Angeles.

She is Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress working as a barista at a movie studio lot and sharing an apartment with three other wannabe performers. He is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a.k.a. Seb, a free-wheeling pianist whose shabby apartment is stuffed with unopened boxes full of memorabilia that he intends to put into the jazz club he dreams of opening some day. (If the character’s last name was given in the picture, I don’t recall it.)

The couple meets cute several times before the relationship really gets going. We first meet the characters in standstill freeway traffic when Mia incurs Seb’s wrath by failing to notice that the road has cleared because she’s caught up in rehearsing lines for an audition.

That night, she emerges from a lousy party only to find that her car’s been towed; as she desultorily walks the empty L.A. streets, she’s lured into a restaurant by the melody Sebastian plays. But he’s just violated strict orders to play Christmas standards exclusively, so the owner (J.K. Simmons) fires Sebastian, and he rudely brushes past Mia as she tries to compliment him on his music.

Some weeks later, Mia spots Sebastian at another party, this time as he’s playing keyboards for an ’80s cover band; soon afterward, they have their first conversation, followed in short order by one of three song-and-dance numbers that Green and Gosling perform together as they search for her car in the Hollywood hills. He starts singing:

We stumbled on a view
That’s tailor-made for two
What a shame those two are you and me

Some other girl and guy
Would love this swirling sky
But there’s only you and I
And we’ve got no shot

This could never be
You’re not the type for me


And not a spark in sight
What a waste of a lovely night

The next day, he seeks her out at her coffee shop, where they go from an impromptu tour of the studio lot to a crash course in jazz at an empty L.A. music club. Soon, love is in the air.

Here the movie turns; instead of scheming to bring its leads together, the script now asks us to consider what price artists must pay to realize their dreams, and whether that cost can sometimes be too high.

This is actually the second on-screen romance that I’ve seen between Stone and Gosling; in Crazy, Stupid, Love, their characters were a playboy captivated by the beautiful young lawyer whom he spotted in a bar one night. But the couple were secondary characters in that romantic comedy, which was really the story of Jacob’s friend Cal (Steve Carell) and his troubled marriage. Here, they take center stage; indeed, hardly any other character has speaking parts in more than two scenes. While their chemistry doesn’t light the world on fire, both leads are charming, and their dance numbers are a delight.

But La La Land is less interested in getting stupid laughs and more interested in, well, charming and delighting its audience with the couple’s interplay while capturing some of the work and relationship trials and tribulations that face the modern heterosexual duo. Yes, these are extraordinarily attractive performers, and yes, these characters are immensely talented; even so, it’s not all smooth sailing.

Chazelle’s film delves briefly but repeatedly into three other subjects that give the movie a certain depth. One of them is modern Los Angeles, which Sebastian quips worships everything but knows nothing; another is the movie industry, which can be both tremendously rewarding but terribly cruel; and the third is jazz, which one character argues is too busy following in the footsteps of 20th century musicians to actually forge their own paths.

The latter argument is made explicitly by Keith (musician John Legend), who offers Sebastian a very tempting — and potentially very lucrative — gig about midway through the picture. “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” Keith asks Seb at one point. “You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”

La La Land offers no easy answers — unless, of course, you take its fairly prominent suggestion that you should keep chasing your dreams, no matter the price. This is inspiring advice, although one wonders how well it will turn out for those less talented than Mia and Seb. I suspect that La La Land will influence a lot of aspiring young artists and wannabe artists over the coming decades.

Still, Chazelle keeps you guessing about how things will work out for the leads up until the last minutes of the movie. That said, the resolution leaves plenty of room for discussion, and people can honestly disagree over how well things worked out for Mia and Seb.

The movie’s strength isn’t just the story it tells; the way it unfolds is pretty spectacular. The visuals are stunning, chock full of primary colors and sunny Southern California views. Justin Hurwitz has penned several original tunes, and they’re beautifully shot and choreographed. Film buffs will especially love the way Chazelle and director of photography Linus Sandgren capture a number of complex dances in what appear to be long unedited single takes.

This is Chazelle’s third time out helming a feature film; he also wrote and directed 2014’s acclaimed Whiplash, about the strained relationship between a young drummer and his intense instructor (Simmons) and an unknown (at least to me) 2009 musical romance called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, in which the male lead is a jazz trumpeter. (Hurwitz scored all three movies). Chazelle has also written three other feature screenplays, including 10 Cloverfield Lane. I’d never seen a Chazelle movie until Saturday night, but I intend to check out his work.

I can’t yet vouch for Whiplash or Guy and Madeline. But I wholeheartedly urge anyone with a fondness for jazz, the movies, L.A. or romance to make sure they see La La Land pronto.

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