I missed Gangster Squad, so I’ve been wanting to see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone back on screen together ever since the film Crazy Stupid Love, in which their “Time of My Life” routine captured the hearts of women everywhere. His abs! Her laugh! I got my wish with La La Land, and I am happy to report that these two do not disappoint. They still have that same sassy, sexy chemistry that makes you root for their relationship. And let’s face it—they are bonafide movie stars.
This film, which opens limited Dec. 9, before it goes wide Dec. 16, is just so different from everything else out there right now. It’s like a breath of fresh air. Right from the start, you know this movie is special. It opens with a giant traffic jam on L.A’.s freeways but you soon realize that this is no ordinary snarl of backed up vehicles.
Instead of honking their horns and yelling at each other, drivers start getting out of their cars, and singing and dancing and skateboarding and playing instruments and doing back flips. Everyone is wearing rainbow colors, and it’s all done in one long shot. Oh, and the song they are all singing is an upbeat tune called “Another Day of Sun.” Corny? Kind of. But it’s also fun and optimistic and retro and refreshing, and it grabs your attention in a “What the hell is going on?” sort of way.
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That’s when we meet our soon-to-be lovers—Sebastian (a brooding, old fashioned jazz pianist played by Gosling) and Mia (a perky, old fashioned barista/aspiring actress played by Stone), who are part of the freeway pile up. Their introduction is when Sebastian honks at Mia, who is distracted while reading a script. She flips him off and they both pull away. But of course, we know they are going to meet again.
Directed by 31-year-old wunderkind Damien Chazelle (who wrote and directed the acclaimed Whiplash), the story line here isn’t what makes it so special—boy meets girl, they hate each other, but really love each other, and they eventually have to come to terms with how to reconcile their romance with their careers, hopes, and dreams. What makes this film so great is the music, the actors’ chemistry, the art direction, the array of special moments, and the fact that it’s an ode to old fashioned musicals à la Singing in the Rain or An American in Paris. And, interestingly, although it takes place in current times, it feels like it’s from another era. From Sebastian’s suits and Mia’s swingy dresses to the venues they frequent, like smoky jazz clubs and old theaters.
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Be prepared to suspend your disbelief and buy into the fantasy—i.e. a scene in the Hollywood Hills where they suddenly stop talking and break into song, dancing in perfect rhythm on a winding road under the moonlight. Another, where they kiss and literally float up into the stars inside the Griffith Observatory. My guess is that any cynicism you still had left will start melting away and instead of smirking, you’ll feel yourself smiling like I did.
But of course we need some tension here. Ready? Sebastian is a purist who wants to open an authentic jazz club, but instead, finds himself making ends meet by joining a pop band led by his old pal Keith, (a very smooth John Legend). Mia—who in turn encourages Sebastian to follow his dreams, then wants him to make money, then gets mad at him for “selling out”—is experiencing her own rocky path to success. This includes a series of humiliating auditions, as she strives to be an actress and playwright. Goals collide, conflict ensues, and all the mushy sentimentality gets a big dose of reality.
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Chazelle expertly combines optimism and melancholy—a perfect mix for the holiday season. There are also some good cameos: J.K. Simmons as Sebastian’s acerbic boss at the famous SmokeHouse in Burbank, where the pianist begrudgingly plays popular Christmas tunes as opposed to his own edgier works. There’s also Rosemarie DeWitt as Sebastian’s no-nonsense sister, Finn Wittrock as Mia’s spurned boyfriend, and a trio of actresses in crayon-colored dresses who play Mia’s perky roomates—Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, and Callie Hernandez.
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A bonus for Angelenos is that the city is another character in the movie. Chazelle’s romanticized shots of Mt. Hollywood Drive, The Rialto Theater, The Warner Brothers lot, The Lighthouse Café, the Observatory, the Hermosa Pier, The Angels Flight funicular, Hollywood pool parties, and even the freeways are one big love letter to Tinseltown.
Do not miss this one! It is already getting lots of awards love, as well as major critical accolades. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming “City of Stars” on the way home.