Year Released: 2016
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
(PG-13, 128 min.)
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Musical and Performing Arts
“When you cease to dream you cease to live.” Malcolm Forbes
This sweet little film is certainly a pleasant 2 plus hour diversion. But is it deserving of its gushing praise and frenetic Oscar buzz? That’s a definite no from this film critic.
Nor does it live up to the 1940s song and dance standards it emulates.
But taken on is own merits, there is much to like in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land.
Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are trying to live their dreams, she as an actress and he as a jazz musician in modern LA. Mia works as a barista at a high-end coffee shop while Sebastian pays his bills tickling the ivories at a local restaurant, playing the requisite Christmas tunes.
He is not to play any jazz, the stern uncompromising owner (J.K. Simmons) tells him, in a way that suggests that is exactly what Sebastian has been slipping into the play list on a regular basis. Yes, the same J.K. Simmons who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the uncompromising conductor in Chazelle’s 2014 film Whiplash. There’s a bit of irony here with Simmons insisting on the rather bland Christmas list and eschewing jazz, since jazz was his focus for perfection in the earlier film.
There’s also a bit of fun in the title. La La Land works on many levels. Certainly it references the setting, but in tongue-in-cheek self-awareness, acknowledges its kookiness, too. And the title suggests the surreal sequences, like the opening traffic jam that breaks out into a song and dance number, and the floating footsteps at the Griffith Observatory.
In the best of musical comedy traditions, Mia and Sebastian get off to a bad start, or should we say several bad starts. First, he honks at her tardy start in a horrendous traffic jam, and then later rudely dismisses her compliments on his piano performance. Of course, he has just been summarily fired, but that doesn’t diminish his ill manners.
Of course, we all know where things will go, even if Mia (“I hate jazz!”) and Sebastian (“You’re not my type.”) don’t.
Their first song and dance number (“A Lovely Night”) is as tentative as their feelings for each other. In a crowded theater you wouldn’t even hear the soft voiced singing in the back rows, and the dance steps speak of perhaps rushed apprenticeships. No way are we going to going to mistake them for Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, or Fred and Ginger. And there certainly are not any memorable songs you wont’t be able to get out of your head. In fact, these songs have a difficult time even getting into your head, if I must say so.
But there is a sort of sweetness in the somewhat amateur efforts, and it gives La La Land an authenticity we relate to more than the perhaps over polished and choreographed perfection of older musicals.
Song and dance routines aside, La La Land transports us to the spirit and innocence of those earlier time. Both Mia and Sebastian support each other’s dreams. When she gets discouraged over so many failed auditions, he encourages her to write her own play and put on a one-woman show.
She learns to appreciate his love for jazz and warns against selling out to make a paycheck, even if he does so to try to support the two of them. Yes, they end up living together, but the most tender, sizzling moment between them on screen is when they first hold hands at a showing of Rebel Without a Cause. We are back to romance instead of its showy substitute sex.
So, while I don’t see Oscar caliber here, I can recognize its charm. And most of its competitors have their own obstacles, many because of the predilections of the Academy itself.
Fences has the best script and acting, but it lacks the productions values so prized in Hollywood. And a war film like Hacksaw Ridge, even one featuring a pacifist, is going to be a tough sell with the Academy Awards judges. And that’s even before we note its director is Mel Gibson. Hell or High Water is more a regional gem, and Manchester by the Sea a bit bleak even for the nihilists, who, thank goodness, seem to have lost their prime seats at the Academy.
And on a more cynical note, it’s about them. Hollywood always gushes over films about their craft, such as Birdman, The Artist , or Argo. They will see themselves in the aspiring idealists Mia and Sebastian and forget their more tawdry lives.
And you should as well. For a few hours dance on instead of with the stars and feel the exquisite joy and pain of it all.
Will Sebastian ever own the jazz bar he dreams of? Well, if so, we can recommend something to serve. Despite its Russian name this little gem was invented right in Hollywood, in 1941, to be exact.
In 1941, a Hollywood bar owner met with a liquor distributor on the Sunset Strip and mixed the first Moscow Mule as a marketing tool to sell more vodka—it worked.
The 1940s time frame is also appropriate, given the film is a tribute to the musicals of that era.
Put on some Coltrane and enjoy.
La Moscow Mule Cocktail Recipe
2 oz. vodka
1 oz. fresh lime juice
4 oz. ginger beer
Garnish: lime wedge
Pour the vodka and lime juice into an ice-filled glass. Add the ginger beer, stir and garnish.