By Landry Harlan
BU News Service
2016, to put it mildly, has been a bummer of a year.
The celebrity deaths, refugee crisis, natural disasters, and He Who Must Not Be Named, among others, put a cloud over almost every interaction. The ball can’t drop fast enough, but wait: Just when you’ve given up hope, the remedy is here. It’s got songs, charm and enough sunshine to last you through even a New England winter.
It’s “La La Land.” It’s the best movie of the year.
Turns out movie musicals aren’t dead — they just needed California. Not even LA’s infamous traffic can stop the aspiring stars on an overpass from tapping, flipping and, in one case, biking on the cars in an opening scene that will put a huge grin on your face as soon as the cowbell catches the beat.
It’s there our heroes meet. He, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), gives her (Emma Stone) the horn. She, practicing her lines for an audition, gives him the finger. He drives off, but we know it’s only temporary. A good meet-cute always starts in war.
They meet again, of course. Several times, in fact, which even Sebastian later comments “must mean something.” The movie certainly isn’t subtle, but subtlety is overrated. The would-be actress soon finds him playing piano at a samba-tapas restaurant in a miserable state, fired after going off set list with a melody you’ll be humming long after the credits. He brushes her off on the way out. Strike two!
Alas, the fairytale must go on, and she soon sees him again at a pool party where he’s even more miserable as the keyboardist in an ‘80s cover band. They bicker and banter ‘til the magic hour in search of her car before Sebastian twirls around a lamppost à la Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Mia then puts on her tap shoes and the duet begins. And we’re off!
The whirlwind romance is complicated by the pairs’ dreams. He wants to open a jazz club (she hates jazz) and she wants to be a playwright (he misses her performance). It’s not a particularly novel courtship, but the stylish execution with throwbacks to old Hollywood ensure you never really care.
And there’s plenty of movie magic. The two visit the Griffith Observatory, an LA staple, and dance amongst the stars in zero gravity, similar to that lighter-than-air feeling one gets on a first date. Lights dim and focus on Mia and Sebastian throughout the film when they see each other in a crowded room, just as when love blurs out the background in real life.
I could go on and on about the songs (they’re lovely and damn catchy) or the performances (Gosling and Stone delight as they usually do), but it’s the small, human moments that linger and will bring you back for a second viewing. Watching Mia’s heartbroken eyes as a casting director takes a call during her audition, or Sebastian forcing a smile as he plays music he hates just to pay the bills harkens to a universal longing. It’s the desire to pursue that calling and create something that means something.
LA is the mecca for this desire, and writer and director Damien Chazelle (of 2014’s kinetic “Whiplash”) acknowledges it, maintaining a melancholy over the romance and a delicate balance between sweet and sappy. A montage of longing and regret in the third act gives the movie a weight musicals rarely reach, and it is the most beautiful sequence of the year. Justin Hurwitz’s luminous score interweave old scenes in a new light. Only the opening montage from “Up” can compete for tears.
There are a few fair criticisms that can be made: Gosling is not an impressive singer and there are lulls when you wish there could be another song, but these are minor quibbles that don’t take away from the film’s lasting impression.
Simply, “La La Land” is joyous, and how many movies are these days? Like all great art, the world seems different when you leave. It’s a little brighter, a little warmer and perfect for a good tap dance. You smile, you hum and you go back home with a desire to continue chasing your dreams, or start again. Ask that girl on a second date! Write that script! Move to LA! It’s a movie that will move you. It’s a work of art that will inspire you to create your own art. What more can we ask of the movies?