For a man who has spent so much of his life in movie theaters, I never managed to gain a taste for popcorn.
The kernels hurt my teeth and the oily mass of “butter” tends to upset my stomach. As a result, I don’t often make the “movies=popcorn” connection in my brain as so many do, and when I do eat the starch, it’s in the form of a few stolen handfuls at the expense of an accompanying filmgoer who does believe in the magical theater popcorn symbiosis.
But entering the crowded theater lobby for Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, I was struck with the sense that this was a special occasion, a time where a little uncharacteristic splurging was necessary to celebrate the true theatrical experience. And so I let a buttered popcorn, Nathan’s hot dog, and medium root beer serve as my temporary dinner, because it just felt right. My intuition proved correct, as Chazelle’s charming original musical waxed poetic in celebration of classic Hollywood, modern Hollywood, music history, the lovers, the dreamers, and me. La La Land invites you to get lost in your own local cinema for a few hours, indulge yourself in the spectacle, and use all your senses to take in everything good about the movies.
La La Land evokes the familiar plot beats of the ‘40s and ‘50s musicals it replicates but combines them with more contemporary takes like The Last Five Years. The film tells the story of Mia and Sebastian, (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling) an aspiring actress and a cynical jazz pianist who strike up a romance in modern-day Los Angeles. In true musical format, the two start off disliking each other — treating us to a charming Gene Kelly-esque tap dance sequence where they complain about wasting a perfectly romantic night on an unromantic couple — but eventually they succumb to each other’s charms. Throughout their romance, they encourage each other’s dreams — her wanting to put on a one-woman show and him wanting to own a historic jazz bar. But their dreams eventually fade to monetary needs, and their relationship is threatened when Sebastian takes a regular job playing in a jazz-electro band for an old nemesis (John Legend).
From its opening number — a one-take big-band ensemble piece set on a crowded freeway — La La Land shows off Chazelle’s technical mastery as well as his loving embrace of every possible “classic Hollywood” cliche from streetlight dances to neon-sign montages. But in infinitely clever ways, the film modernizes these ideas without going into full ironic subversion. For example, in a scene where Mia and Sebastian are leaving a party, she stops to change her shoes in a moment which should feel familiar to all young women in the audience — removing the high heels and slipping on the flats she has hidden in her purse. They just happen to be tap shoes, and this happens to be the right moment for a big tap dance number! The winking and smiling never outstays its welcome, though, because Chazelle keeps the pace moving at a fast clip, working a tempo that JK Simmons (who appears in cameo here) would be proud of.
La La Land is all about movement — Chazelle and DP Linus Sandgren treat the camera like a dancer even outside of dance numbers. The film is permeated with large wide shots showing off all elements of a scene, shots which lead into extended pans as the characters walk along the set, or shots that snake through jazz clubs, Goodfellas-style. All of this movement can go undetected as the scenes draw you in mentally, but the emphasis makes sure that the audience realizes the moments of stillness. After 90 minutes of continuous motion and color flashing before us, there’s extra impact to a still shot of Sebastian sitting in front of a white wall, realizing that he has to start making some actual money for his dreams. Stillness is also used to great effect when everything goes dark and either character is about to have their Big Musical Moment. The well-timed starts and stops in the film are more than just impressive visual stimuli; they’re effective storytelling.
Of course, none of this would matter if our leads couldn’t carry the film.
Stone and Gosling are so effortlessly charming in their third film together they consciously conjure images of classic “screen couples” such as Tracy and Hepburn. In one of the film’s best interactions, Mia teases Sebastian’s pretentious jazz purism by forcing him to play A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” at a party, complete with keytar. The sheer disdain on Gosling’s face is only matched by the spiteful joy on Stone’s as she mockingly mouths the lyrics in front of him. There’s a playfulness to both of them which also serves well as a balance against their flaws. But this film is, at least in part, about the moments when the flaws of a relationship outweigh the fun parts, and Gosling and Stone both work to sell those points as well.
Just like I never developed a fondness for popcorn, I also never liked the idea of using movies as pure escapism. In my mind, even the most fantastical of films should make the audience think of something beyond the film itself. But there are exceptions to every rule, and the spectacle of La La Land was exactly what I needed. It was even good enough to make me break my self-imposed ban on using reviews as personal narratives. It’s a film that celebrates the submissive act of sitting in the dark and letting images on the screen overtake you for a bit. The movie begs to be seen in theaters, and I mean this literally. There’s even a scene where a bunch of snobbish bores talk about how much they love their home theater systems while Ryan Gosling waits romantically at a cinema. This kind of on-the-nose obviousness should have drawn eye-rolls from me, but it comes across so charming and genuine that I can’t fault it for that.
More importantly, and this is purely coincidental but still relevant, Damien Chazelle’s film now serves the same purpose as the WWII/Cold war-era musicals he made an homage to. For the first time in over a month, La La Land allowed me to spend 127 minutes not being concerned about the political climate, not wondering if we’ve tweeted an intent to declare war on China yet, just focusing on two pretty people falling in and out of love. Eventually I would have to leave the theater and reality would set back in, just as it did for Mia and Sebastian, but this concentrated dose of cinematic sincerity is enough to last me for a bit while focusing on more important matters. More than anything, right now, we could all stand to take a brief trip to La La Land.
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