Movie-Musical Review: 'La La Land'

Spencer Lau

  • OnStage New Jersey Critic

When you see Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land”, do not be surprised at how amazed your heart and spirit will feel when you leave the movie theatre. At this time of year we all get sentimental when we watch “Holiday Inn,” or “White Christmas”, some people enjoy watching the classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. La La Land is exactly that. It harkens back to the days of classic musical movies but has a modern storyline.

The movie opens with a big Broadway ensemble opening, “Another Day of Sun” on an LA freeway before beginning to tell the story of struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and lounge piano player Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). During the day Mia attempts to balance her job as a café barista in a coffee shop on the back lot of a movie studio, and becoming an actress in Hollywood. Sebastian is caught between trying to make a living as a pianist and his dreams of opening his own jazz club. This is a classic romantic movie as their paths cross multiple times in different settings, both Mia and Sebastian quickly develop a relationship based upon a mutual appreciation of the passion they have in their love of acting and owning a jazz club. Without spoiling the rest of the movie, it explores how they balance their individual dreams while continuing to have the witty and passionate relationship they have together.

The chemistry between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling is undeniable. They have previously appeared in “The Gangster Squad” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love” together. On screen you can see the little things that show genuine love and emotions between two characters. Mia and Sebastian can see in each other the bright star that lies within and encourage each other to let that come out any way possible. Emma Stone’s portrayal of Mia is superb. She takes her well-known sass and moments of vulnerability and adds a nice singing voice. In fact her song “The Audition” was done in one take. Throughout the movie you can see that Mia stays true to her beliefs as an aspiring actress. Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian is full of heart. Sebastian is willing to do anything to make Mia happy and successful, even if it means his character must sacrifice things in his life to help her achieve her dreams. Gosling excels in playing these selfless characters and brings his charm and quick wit delivery to Sebastian. In fact (as if he was not cool enough), Ryan learned how to play the songs on piano for the movie). Playing important roles in this movie are John Legend (playing Keith, a friend of Sebastian) and J.K. Simmons (playing Bill, a lounge owner, in a cameo) who provide the obstructions that Sebastian must find ways to overcome through the movie, while the unforgiving movie industry challenge Mia.

Damien Chazelle is best known of his first full-length film, the “Whiplash,” that won J.K. Simmons his first Academy Award among its list of accolades. Chazelle’s take on the classic storyline of boy meets girl is refreshing and has so much classic MGM movie in it but with a modern circumstances. His use of camera work is quite masterful especially in the opening where “Another Day of Sun” gives you this “walk and talk” of what people are thinking and wanting while sitting on a hot day on the LA Freeway. Many of the dance sequences bring back the feeling of classic song and dance numbers. What Chazelle’s film does get the audience to do is to think. What would you do if you were Mia or if you were Sebastian? How far will you go to gain individual happiness and how far would you go to keep your relationship?

Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is brilliant and when coupled with Mandy Moore’s choreography, it is a visual feast of color and dance that help drive the story Chazelle sets out early in the film. Two early contrasting cases in point are “Someone in the Crowd” and “A Lovely Night”.  In “Someone in the Crowd” there is a large ensemble doing multitude of dances and actions in different times of day that transition seamlessly. “A Lovely Night” is a contrast of a couple getting to know each other. 

The music by Justin Hurwitz with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul really separate the movie from other musicals. Hurwitz’s music provides a brilliant soundtrack that feature sweeping ballads, waltzes, a ballet, a variety of jazz charts, crooners songs of yesteryear, and mixes of pop modes with Broadway musicals. When coupled with the lyrics of rising stars of Broadway in Pasek & Paul (“Dear Evan Hansen”), the movie features wonderful variety of musical styles. They wonderfully blend Hurwitz’s music along with their brilliant lyrics to capture the style of Chazelle’s vision and desired effect that remind you of the old time musical. Both Ryan Gosling (“City of Stars”) and Emma Stone (“The Audition”) get to show off their vocal abilities and showcase lyrics that drive their characters individually as well as together (“A Lovely Night).  

In the end “La La Land” is a brilliant musical film. It is a modern day love story that the pop culture audience comes to expect in a film but mixes it with the wonderment and joys of a classic song and dance musical movie. While there may not be real life song and dance in relationships, the music, lyrics and choreography capture what our hearts feel through a relationship. It explores the joys as well as the trials and tribulations. There may be a point at the end of the movie that would confuse younger audience members but it provides one of the most captivating moments of the film. This is a film you take your parents or grandparents and enjoy seeing what pomp and circumstance the Golden Age of movies was like.

“La La Land”

Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, J.K. Simmons
Directed/Written by: Damien Chazelle
Music by: Justin Hurwitz