***Note: there are spoilers in this review. I will indicate the section in which they occur so that you may skip it if you like. ***
We don’t really get many live-action movie musicals these days. Sure, you can still find musicals on Broadway and the occasional television special, but it’s increasingly rare to see one on the big screen. And so when a film like La La Land comes along, which is not only a live-action musical, but a thematic and stylistic throwback to the Golden Age of musicals, it’s worth paying attention to.
La La Land tells the story of Mia and Sebastian, two performers with huge dreams. Mia (Emma Stone) is a struggling actress with dreams of becoming a star; Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling jazz musician who dreams of owning his own jazz club. In typical musical fashion, they meet, fall in love, and share in each other’s dreams, all to the tune of some catchy and well-choreographed musical numbers. It’s a familiar story for the most part — very reminiscent of old-school musicals — but also a very charming one.
Stone and Gosling have truly amazing chemistry together, and it is a genuine delight to see them interact on screen. The film contains many small moments that chart the growth of their relationship — the first time they meet, the first time they hold hands, a surprise romantic dinner — and it helps the audience become effectively invested in their relationship.
More over, the film is a treat sonically and visually. The songs are all very enjoyable. Nearly all of them have an old fashioned jazzy feel — again, much like old musicals — although a few more modern numbers are incorporated as well for story telling purposes. The choreography during the musical numbers is also very well done; Stone and Gosling, in addition to their acting chemistry, exhibit the kind of enjoyable chemistry through their dancing that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers used to, which is a nice touch.
Visually, the movie is also old fashioned. Though set in modern day Los Angeles, the cinematography, costume design, and color pallet are all evocative of the Golden Age of Hollywood. There are even seeming deliberate anachronisms in the picture — such as the kind of films shown being shot on a studio back lot during one seen — to remind us of days long passed. They also begin the movie by advertising that it was shot in Cinemascope, something that classic films used to do. All of this gives the picture a very pleasurable and unique retro-aesthetic that more than makes it stand out in today’s filmic landscape.
La La Land‘s throwback sensibilities to old-school musicals and old-school show business aren’t restricted to plot structure and style; they’re also an active theme in the story. Many times throughout the picture we are told explicitly how nice things used to be in the old days of show business (for Mia it was the gloss of old Hollywood, for Sebastian, the flavor and energy of old jazz); and what discussion there is of the ways of the modern world — corporatism, commercial driven music, omnipresent digital technology — is almost always negative. There’s admittedly some white-washing going on there, but I nevertheless understand and enjoy this film’s retro-ism; I think it helps add meaning to the plot and also helps to foster an interest in older films for the audience.
Overall I would say that 95% of La La Land is a terrific movie. It’s entertaining, emotional, and artful; and it more than succeeds at bringing older sensibilities to modern cinema. Having said that, I was not crazy about the ending, which I do think brings the picture down somewhat. Unfortunately, I feel as though I must discuss it in detail in order to explain what’s wrong with it, so the next section will contain spoilers.
You would think that with La La Land‘s old fashioned story, the love between Mia and Sebastian, and Stone and Gosling’s amazing chemistry, Mia and Sebastian would be together at the end of the picture. But in a truly shocking twist, they are not. Mia eventually lands a role in a film that opens up her path to stardom, but she and Sebastian both believe it would not be possible to maintain their relationship if she becomes a movie star. Thus, they agree to split up.
The film then cuts to five years in the future with Mia, now a star and married to someone else. While in Los Angeles, she stops in a club one night only to discover that it is the very jazz club that Sebastian dreamed of and eventually opened. They spot each other across the restaurant and share a collective vision of what their life could have been had they stayed together, before going their separate ways.
I think I understand the point of this ending. It is the one part of the film that tries to be explicitly modern in showing that sometimes you can’t have your cake and eat it too in terms of finding love and chasing dreams; and the implication at the end that Mia and Sebastian may have even been happier had they stuck together instead of breaking up in order to pursue their dreams is admittedly refreshing. And to be fair, arguably the best musical number of the film happens during their vision. So it’s not as though this ending isn’t appreciable or entertaining.
Having said that, I still think this is the wrong ending to the picture. This is a movie that puts too much effort into promoting starry-eyed wondrous old fashioned-ness for it to abandon what is arguably the most important old fashioned theme: that the boy and girl live happily ever after at the end. The ending, which takes us out of idealism and reminds of the harsh realities of real life, is jolting and seemingly at odds with the rest of the film; and though not devoid of merit, it feels like the ending to a different picture. Sometimes you just want to see the boy and girl end up together; sometimes you want to see love find a way. And up until the ending, this was the kind of movie that was fighting for that sensibility. That it drops it is a disappointment.
End Spoiler Section
To sum up, La La Land is the Apocalypse Now* of throwback movie musicals: it’s really great until the end, and then it somewhat flubs the conclusion. Nevertheless, the vast majority of this movie works. It is aesthetically pleasing, heartfelt, and remarkably fresh (ironically by being old fashioned), and those who worked on it, including Stone and Gosling and also director Damien Chazelle (who has been on a role since Whiplash), should be proud of the film that they have made. It pains me that it comes so close to being perfect only to miss the mark at the end, but I still give this movie a very sincere recommendation. You will likely never see another film quite like this one, and it is definitely worth seeing.
*No, you did not read that wrong, I really did compare this movie to a somber Vietnam fantasy in terms of quality.