La La Land


            At last, a new musical!  Those of us with some musical interest are applauding the courage it took for Hollywood to make and produce this, because musicals are not nearly as popular now as they were in previous generations, and because they rarely make money, and because they (almost) never win any Oscars.  So they have to be offered by people who just plain love the medium of the musical.  And if you are one of those folks, then you'll enjoy this movie.

            Of course, it's not perfect.  Writer and Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) seems to enjoy bringing some tension to his screenplays.  The opening scene is pure show biz in L.A.:  a traffic jam, where the people stuck in the cars get out and do an old-style ensemble song and dance routine.  That's where we briefly meet the two main characters, but after that the focus gets narrower.  Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspring actress who keeps having disastrous auditions.  She lives in a little apartment shared with other aspiring actresses (who all have an energetic number at the beginning, then they disappear from the story line).  Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a “serious” musician who's so far been forced to make a living playing schlock songs in a dining room.  His boss (J.K. Simmons) has warned him about regressing into jazz arrangements, but Sebastian is one of those creative guys who literally can't help himself.  And so he's fired.  Again.

            Sebastian and Mia don't find a connection when they first meet (not at their best in the traffic jam) or when they meet again at a party (singing together afterwards about what a waste of a good view).  But soon their relationship starts to click (at some point they obviously moved in together), and we find them enjoying dating so much that they just break out into song and dance together (well, this is a musical).  They are both young, and they cherish each other's dreams:  she wants to be both an actress and a playwright, and he wants to open his own nightclub where “real” jazz is still featured.  In the meantime, she works at a coffee shop near Hollywood, finally getting a part in a televison show, and he joins a techno/funk band that both tours and records, but at least it pays the bills.

            The irony is pure showbiz:  eventually, they both get most of what they think they want, but their careers are divergent, because now she's traveling and he isn't.  They promise themselves that the distance won't defeat their relationship, but prolonged absences rarely help long-term commitments.

            The style of singing here is not exactly classic Broadway belt-'em-out-without-a-microphone.  It's a quieter style, with mostly invisble orchestration.  Mia's voice, while serviceable, hardly possesses the amazing overtones of say, an Adele.  And Sebastian's baritone, while usable, is not really remarkable, either.  Where Ryan Gosling really shines is as a pianist, and that part is completely belieavable.  Their dancing is competent enough to not distract, but their backup dancers appear to have more internal rhythm and better artistic expression.  So we have to rely on the romance to propel the film, which is not quite happily ever after.  More like “see you in my dreams.”

            But despite all its flaws, still, it's great to see a new musical in 2016.  Hopefully, it will get some attention at awards time, so the studios will consider reviving the genre, even if modified for modern audiences.  Those who want to go to “positive” movies without all the R-rated sex, violence, and language, and aren't into sci-fi, will find this one refreshingly entertaining.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  What was your dream?  Did you live it?  If not, how close did you get?

2)                  When have you experienced a relationship that started off rocky, but later blossomed?

3)                  How has long distance affected your close relationships?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association