Thursday, December 8, 2016

Movie Review: La La Land

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. If you have not yet seen La La Land and wish to do so without having the plot given away, then do not read this.

In fact, dont read any other review either. Go to the theater and watch it now. I cannot possibly emphasize more how much I would like people to go watch this movie. Don’t stream it from a shady website. Don’t torrent it. Don’t wait for it to come out on Netflix. Go to the theater and watch it now. You won’t regret it.

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Some of the earliest movies I remember having watched as a child were musicals and from a young age, I knew that musicals were different from other types of movies. They were different because every topic they dealt with - love, longing, hope, family - were made bigger and purer through their dancing and singing. Sure, Harry had no problems telling Sally that he wanted the rest of his life to start with hers as soon as possible, but Gene Kelly had You Were Meant For Me. Gene Kelly wins hands down.

Musicals ensured that I grew up a romantic. Reality beat it out of me. Love fades, the burden of responsibility grows heavier, wrinkles deepen, hairlines recede, waists expand, recessions bring despair, and youthful idealism is beaten and calloused until all that remains is wary cynicism. However, musicals, especially those made famous by Broadway and Disney can and do still serve as a refuge from harsh realities. Unfortunately, musicals have been few and far between. Good ones even more so.

So I went to watch La La Land with the minimal of expectations. All I knew about the movie was the title, the two lead actors, and the fact that it was a musical. Nothing else. By the time the movie ended about two hours later, I could only think of one word to describe what I had seen, heard, and felt. Magical.

For one thing, it won’t be hard for many people to find the lead characters relatable. Mia (Emma Stone) dropped out of college to move to Los Angeles where she works as a barista and she goes to one audition after another only to have the door slammed on her face by rude and uncaring agents, directors, and producers. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz musician who wants to open his own jazz bar so that he can play music as it was meant to be played but in reality is a starving artist who plays Christmas jingles for measly tip money at a family restaurant. That restaurant’s owner, by the way, is portrayed by J.K. Simmons who seems to be paying a gentle homage to a much more aggressive character he portrayed in Whiplash (both La La Land and Whiplash were directed by Damien Chazelle).

The two meet repeatedly through sheer chance that is so ridiculous that it can only be found in movies. They fall in love, move in with each other, they both push each other to find the successes they dream of, they argue when they think the other isn’t living up to their potential, and in the meantime, there are plenty of singing and dancing.

As for the music, what’s odd about the movie is that there isn’t a single song that I would consider an instant classic. There was no single Defying Gravity moment where a single song’s climactic high notes can can leave the audience breathless. I am sure that at least a couple of the movie’s songs - City of Stars, a jazzy tune with a haunting refrain, and Audition (The Fools Who Dream), the movie’s ultimate anthem - will be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. But it doesn’t seem likely that the songs will have as much longevity or recognition as musical classics go. Also, the two lead actors aren’t the best singers in the world. Had any singer auditioned in front of Simon Cowell singing like that...

Despite that, however, the movie works. The songs might not become instant classics, but instead of relying just on the songs (the lyrics) to move the plot forward, the movie also focused on dance choreography and the music itself. There is a scene where the two actors literally dance among the stars and not a word is said between them. What words can one use to adequately describe a feeling like that? And toward the end of the movie, the two opening notes of City of Stars better convey the characters’ emotions than most songs ever could.

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The movie could have had a mawkish happy ending. But it veered away from that. Depending on one’s fortitude, the ending can be described as being anything from bittersweet to downright heartbreaking. The movie takes its own advice and instead of going for the likable, it goes for the truth and by doing so, the movie goes from being good to great.

And what is the truth? The truth is that everyone has a dream, but most dreams end up broken and scattered on the ground, which is all the more reason so many people do whatever they can to not end up on that boulevard of broken dreams. But there are costs to pursuing one’s dreams and oftentimes one of those things that people have to give up is “the fairy tale ending.”

As the final credits roll, one realizes that the movie was not so much a story about two star-crossed lovers, but rather an ode to everyone with “a dream as foolish as they may seem.”

2016 was a disappointing year for movies. La La Land pushed hard against that and buckled the trend. It was beautiful, well-crafted, romantic, bittersweet, heartbreaking, and honest. It is the best movie that I have seen all year. Perhaps even the best movie that I have seen in a good long while. Here
’s to hoping for more movies like this!

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