Is the fêted "La La Land" really so great? Yes, if you like sheer escapist films and golden-era Hollywood films. Also, it's pretty much a quasi-musical. It doesn't try too hard, and is very tongue-in-cheek about what it purports to be, so it's an overall light and uplifting experience. Definitely the "feel-good" film of the year. However, there are some challenging conversations toward the end, and it will be imperative that you decide what YOU would do in Mia's (the ever-effervescent Emma Stone) and Sebastian's (Ryan "Hey Girl" Gosling) place. The writer-director is Damien Chazelle ("Whiplash").
HOLLYWOOD LOVES FILMS ABOUT HOLLYWOOD
Hollywood loves films about Hollywood and the whole process of filmmaking (remember "The Artist" and, more recently, "Birdman"? Both Best Picture winners in their respective Oscar years). But why do most people enjoy dreaming with the silver screen? Ah, this is one of the great draws of story and film. Just for a moment, just for a minute, we imagine and enter wonderful worlds and trip the light fantastic. As Berthold Auerbach said of music: "Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life." The music in question here is jazz (which I, for one, am wildly fond of). Sebastian is a classic jazz piano player who dreams of opening his own club. But classic jazz is dying. Mia dreams of being a successful actress, but she's in the company of thousands and thousands. What are her chances of standing out?
After having lived in L.A. for five years, I understood the drill: actors can't keep jobs because they have to keep going to auditions at odd hours. Actors are treated brutally and summarily dismissed with no explanation. (We screenwriters were told at UCLA that when our work is rejected, it's just our ideas, so get over it. Actors have their whole being picked over and rejected: looks, voice, walk, personality, etc.)
The soundtrack, which is critical to many plot points helps lend an old-timey feel to the whole film--jazz, 40's romantic ballads, magical Fantasia-esque orchestra with plenty of chimes, oboes, plucked strings and generous flutes. The music and the visuals carefully play with various Hollywood decades and we float seamlessly in and out of them, even though this is firmly a present-day setting. Dancing weaves effortlessly in at opportune moments: tap, ballroom and little bit of honky tonk. The music and dancing are not overused. The camera is having lots of whimsical fun, too, sashaying and spinning about. An element of nostalgia combined with unexpected story-turns is always lurking. LLL evokes the kind of celluloid daydreaming and stargazing people used to "live for" and "live off of." We are even transported to the Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood Hills--first in a film within the film, and then to the Observatory itself where Sebastian and Mia dance among the stars.
"La La Land" is a straightforward linear romance with no flashbacks or B stories--which is a bit of a relief in today's "Memento," toying-with-chronology-and-point-of-view" storytelling culture. LLL is a film about hope and wonder (the last film I saw about wonder was "Tree of Life." Wonder is a bit of a rarity as a film-subject, maybe it always was?) If you're like me, you'll smile frequently during this unusual film.
Sebastian and Mia meet in infamous L.A. traffic on a backed-up freeway on-ramp, and the movie starts off with a bang as people get out of their cars and begin dancing on them --synchronized and singing, of course--like so many commercials we've seen. Pure "fun" is the word that came to mind over and over. And charming. Definitely charming. Just as I was feeling like this was really a lovely throwback to a sweeter time (single girls living all together in an all-girl apartment! Girl roommates giggling over dates coming to pick them up!)--the filmmakers had to slip in a modern-day requisite, a fly in the ointment, a snake in the garden: hooking up and living together. Sigh. As though it were nothing. Sigh. Hooking up and co-habitation is really a blight on the whole enterprise with its terrible message of CONDITIONAL LOVE.
ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS...WELL?
Will you agree with the ending? That it's a good ending, a "just" ending? At first I didn't totally agree, but then I realized it might have been a kind of "altruistic love" ending, almost an O. Henry "Gift of the Magi" type ending, but I mustn't say more than this, except that there's also a very clever alterna-ending.
I would love to discuss the ending more, but it would be a big spoiler. One thing I think we have to ask ourselves in general is this: When do we have to "give up" dreams? We only get one life. Best we make it real and good and beautiful as it is. How? By rolling it all up in a unified ball of faithful glory.
Best Picture at the Oscars? Only if it was a slow year for films, but it wasn't. We had "Hacksaw Ridge."
--This film is much better, more enjoyable than "The Artist."
--A lot of thought, planning and meticulosity went into this film, but the feel is so free-flowing--something that perhaps can only come about when discipline is employed. LLL is frothy, but you're forced to examine your own hopes and dreams and what you've done or not done about them.
--Tapdancing on the sunhorizon.
--An example of LLL's film-era mash-up: some of Sebastian's dialogue is of the "hard-boiled" variety.
--Lots of L.A. jokes, but not all insider jokes. Anyone can get them.
--Emma and Ryan have decent, complementary singing voices.
--Funny snatches of Mia's auditions.
--A few great theme songs/melodies.
--Mia gets schooled on what jazz is all about.
--It seems Sebastian's music is emphasized and explored more than Mia's acting.
--The Griffith Observatory makes an appearance.
--Great build-up to their first kiss.
--Good lyrics, good movement, a good quasi-musical.
--The 1930's bungalow style apartment with the colored-and-black tiles in the bathroom.
--"L.A. worships everything and values nothing." However, I met plenty of film-historian types in L.A. within and without "the industry" who care deeply about Hollywood's past. Not L.A., mind you, Hollywood. L.A. is kind of ahistorical, continually erasing its past. So many transients! I heard it said that 1,000 people come to L.A. every day seeking fame and fortune and 1,000 leave daily. It's the "City of Broken Dreams." I remember once seeing a well-groomed woman walking down Hollywood Blvd., sobbing uncontrollably (and histrionically).
L.A. sometimes feeling like a non-existent place. The Pentecostal Movement started there among "people of every nation," led by the humble and prayerful William Seymour, and Los Angeles became known as another "Jerusalem." The buildings where it all transpired have been leveled. The downtown isn't really anything, but other scattered city-centers are where things happen: Century City, Culver City, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice, Malibu. The cardboard city of Skid Row is a tragic mini-metropolis of the homeless and crippled and cast off (hospitals were caught dumping John and Jane Doe patients, including the elderly in its streets when I lived in L.A. from 2000-2005). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skid_Row,_Los_Angeles
Incidentally, L.A. is known for its LACK of jazz and support of jazz. I heard Carmen Lundy (singer) and Regina Carter (jazz violin) at "The Jazz Bakery" in Culver City, and Carmen was bemoaning the fact!
--Ryan Gosling is better than Ryan Reynolds.