“Then I guess I’ll see you in the movies.”
La La Land begins in a way that is so L.A. my mom — who saw the film with me and who knew nothing about it, including the stars’ names — whispered, “that’s L.A.!!!” to my sister, as if she didn’t know.
So, it opens with a traffic jam on a packed highway in baking heat. Like any (good, or bad) musical, we get a taste of what’s to come in a bombastic opening number. It provides the context. In this case, a young woman in a yellow dress takes the lead and explains that, like the other thousands of people that populate the city, pursuit of your dreams may leave little room for a love life, or any other kind of life.
As the number (the “Overture”) ends, we come to find the stars, Emma Stone (“Oh, her!” My mom says) and Ryan Gosling (“Oh okay…” She adds) in the melee. Gosling, who plays Sebastian, an aspiring, frustrated Jazz pianist, fiddles with his car speaker. Ahead of him, Stone, who plays Mia, an actress, studies a highlighted script. Traffic starts to move. Mia doesn’t realize. Sebastian waits behind her, honking his horn, revving his engine. Still, she doesn’t move. Sebastian sees an opening, pulls around and beside Mia’s car, and shakes his head. She flips him off.
So, they’ve met.
The rest of the opening act does an incredible job selling us on Damien Chazelle’s version of L.A. before reuniting the two.
Chazelle wrote and directed Whiplash, a kind of sleeper hit that the Academy eventually nominated for five of its awards. Between now and then, Chazelle co-wrote the warmly-received sci-fi thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane (not a direct sequel, but obviously not unrelated to Cloverfield). He began his career also with a musical, about a decade ago, called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, so he’s not inexperienced exploring romantic love through song, but I wasn’t sure about the humour. Whiplash is funny in places, but not in the light, biting way the old musicals he attempts to emulate are. Luckily, he pulls it off, well, and it’s because he cast two actors with a history.
The work necessary to make us anticipate Mia and Seb’s romance began back in 2011 when Stone and Gosling starred together in Crazy Stupid Love. We’re now familiar with the way they poke and prod at each other; the way Gosling mutters smug yet effective one-liners that border on compliment but sound more like insults, and the way Stone easily gives as good as she gets.
Chazelle puts the two of them in positions of weakness — especially Gosling, who’s smooth look lends itself easily to embarrassment — that give way to comedy, and that comedy draws them together.
It’s Mia that in a way pursues Sebastian. While she’s starry-eyed and continues to dream of success as an actress, he loses his job the same time they meet, so he blows her off in a would-be meet-cute. The second time they see each other, at an ’80s theme party, it’s less disappointing and even more entertaining. There’s no better scene that highlights Stone’s goofy-face comedic acting, and Gosling’s exact opposite “why the hell am I doing what I’m doing” stone-faced acting.
Later, she hooks him again. As he leaves the party in nice clothes, hair perfectly styled, just enough scruff, she calls after him: “Hey George Michael!” They spend the rest of the evening tap-dancing, dancing, singing, and refusing to acknowledge they kind of like each other, all against the backdrop of an indigo L.A. sky.
Sebastian can’t stay away for long, and he finds her the next morning where she works on a production studio lot. On her break, they go on what’s kind of a date, and at the end of it Gosling asks her on a very real date to a movie, Rebel Without A Cause. This date so excites her she forgets two things: she already has a (boring) boyfriend, and she’s got a dinner with him the same night she’s supposed to see Sebastian.
Of course, 30 minutes into the dinner, she magically hears the song (in the restaurant, in her head?) she first heard Sebastian play right before their would-be meet-cute. This inspires her to ditch this guy, and meet Sebastian late at the showing. The film reel burns just after they see a car head to Griffith Park Observatory, and Sebastian “gets an idea”. The next thing we see is a recreation of the scene in Rebel. Sebastian drives Mia up to an empty Griffith Observatory, and from this point on the movie fully embraces the kind of surrealism only musicals get away with.
I’ve seen it once with my family, a second time with my friends, and a third time alone. It’s good in every situation. As of today it’s tied for the most Oscar nominations in the Academy’s history.
Go see this shitttt.