Review: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in "La La Land" show a fairy tale look at a tough business


I've seen La La Land twice: the first time in a theater – where movies like this deserve to be seen – and the second at home, courtesy of a DVD screener. In the theater I was bowled over by the music, the dancing, the art direction and the cinematography. Loved it! I was less enamored with the story connecting the songs. I found the two lead characters kind of annoying and their problems tiresome.

On second viewing I enjoyed the film more. Story-wise, I knew what was coming and it didn't bug me; instead I savored the strong performances of Emma Stone as aspiring actor Mia, and Ryan Gosling as jazz pianist Sebastian.

I appreciated the music and the production numbers just as much, but this time I was more aware of the intense effort being put forth to present tunes that feel airy, and dance routines that seemed spontaneous.

La La Land starts off with a production number on a backed up L.A. freeway that is so big and colorful and elaborate and tuneful and cool that it could have served as the climax of most musicals. From there the film starts scaling down its song and dance numbers. It's a ballsy decision that may turn off some viewers, but it fits.

Damien Chazelle is the writer-director of the film. His last movie was Whiplash, about the relationship between an absurdly demanding music teacher and a student who practices playing his drums until his hands bleed.

Damien's characters are demanding people that generally do not play well with others. In La La Land Mia dreams of becoming a star, but gets rattled when she isn't chosen at a cattle call audition. Urged by Sebastian, she decides to write and perform a one-woman show because, hey, when you have relatively few friends and you're living in a city with more entertainment options than most places on Earth, why not try to get strangers to pay to watch you perform a solo show?

Sebastian has a job playing Christmas tunes on piano, but he cheesed off his boss (Whiplash sadistic teacher J.K. Simmons) by getting all jazzy. He dreams of opening his own jazz club, but ends up taking a high-paying job with a jazz-pop star (John Legend) instead.

Poor Mia. Stuck with the audition process just like all the other actors. Poor Sebastian. Trapped into touring the world with a boss that appreciates his talent. Clearly these two tortured souls are meant for each other.

Their first encounter comes during the freeway number. He honks his horn at her to get a move on, and she gives him the finger.

Aw Damien, you are such a romantic.

Their best early meeting comes at a pool party where Sebastian is a mortified keyboardist in a band playing '80s tunes. Mia requests “I Ran,” Sebastian seethes, she teases him, and a relationship is born.

Enough story, let's get back to the music and dancing. I've no idea how many of the locations are the actual places they appear to be and how many are studio recreations or computer-generated green screen images. Whatever the method, the results are gorgeous, from the freeway scene (supposedly the high, curving ramp connecting the 105 freeway to the 110 heading toward downtown L.A.) to a dreamy number at the Griffith Park Observatory (incorporating a homage to “Rebel Without a Cause”).

It's hard to stay cranky about the story when the music (Justin Hurwitz wrote the music, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul the lyrics) is so perfect. Some have complained that, aside from “City of Stars,” most of the tunes aren't distinct enough to be memorable. All I can say is that they certainly sound fine in context. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling handle the vocals and dancing nicely. Their voices get where they need to go, while still sounding human enough to be relatable. Same with the dancing.

Over the next few weeks this movie is going to snag a lot of awards, along with an Academy Award Best Picture nomination. Is La La Land the best movie of the year? I don't think so, but most of the people that will be voting for the various awards are performers that have spent plenty of time auditioning and doing unsatisfying gigs in the hope of making it big. La La Land is a fairy tale look at a tough business. If they choose to celebrate it, more power to them. Despite its failings, there's a lot of magic in this movie.


Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.

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