Awards Season 2016: ‘La La Land’ ✭✭✭✭✭

When I first came to La La Land, I wasn’t immediately enchanted. There was the smell, the noise and the traffic. Yet, I came to live here, choosing a graduate school to be close to the person I loved. “La La Land” is about love, dreams that bring couples together and pull couples apart.

Damien Chazelle made music matter in his second feature “Whiplash” where a ferocious taskmaster of a teacher (J.K. Simmons) at the Shaffer Conservatory takes in a first-year jazz student drummer (Miles Teller) and pushes in a way that is clearly abusive.  That 2013 movie won Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing and a Best Supporting Actor (Simmons).

In “La La Land,” he has written and directed a love letter to Los Angeles. It shows the aspects of Los Angeles I have come to love and the fluidity of its people and made me fall in love with yellow dresses.

Mia and Sebastian first see each other on the freeway during a traffic jam. More people are dancing on top of cars than on the TV series “Fame.” Oh if only that would happen when I’m stuck in traffic. Mia (Emma Stone) is one of the millions of young white actresses who work at dead end jobs to focus on their acting. Mia is a barista at the coffee shop on the Warner Bros. Studio lot.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who has a gig playing a set list for the Christmas crowd under the strict gaze of the restaurant’s manager, Bill (J.K. Simmons). The second time they meet, Sebastian has broken off of the boring Christmas set list to try some of his own jazz-influenced work. That melody entices Mia to enter, but by the time she gets to speak with him, Sebastian has been fired and is storming out.

When they meet again, Mia is at a Hollywood party where starlets try to impress and be discovered. Sebastian is play the keyboards for a cover band. He’s obviously bored, but needs the money. Los Angeles is a large town, but things like this do happen and when they happen often enough you got to wonder.

Eventually, Mia and Sebastian do get together, fall in love and live together. Sebastian finally takes a good paying gig that takes him on the road for months at a time with his frenemy Keith (John Legend). Mia works on a script and rents the old theater, the Rialto, for a one-night performance to a mostly empty theater. She hears brutal criticism and Sebastian, due to a sudden work-related commitment, cannot make it. Mia returns home, her dreams shattered, but Sebastian goes after her and pushes her to go for her dreams and ultimately pushes her away from him.

Legend’s Keith is sure of his goals and plays for profit, but Gosling’s Sebastian is an uncertain purist trying to be practical. His unhappiness percolates under the surface and his disappointment at missing Mia’s performance brings things to a simmer. Yet you can sense that both Sebastian and Mia do not have the intensity and dedication to carry on a long-distance romance; choices will have to be made. We can believe Gosling and Stone as young lovers; they have the chemistry but also the dreaminess with a touch of glamour that isn’t out of reach for an average person.

The scenario of Mia’s one-person show bringing movie success isn’t so far-fetched. As a theater critic, I spent many evenings in small equity-waiver theaters. Some were self-indulgent with the opening night filled with family and friends. The biggest success story might have been Nia Vardalos’ “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” which became a movie in 2002. Most one-person shows I saw were in smaller spaces that could barely fit 20 people.

I have also sat in the Rialto Theater which was not normally used for stage performances until recently. I saw a restored version of the original “Godzilla,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Life Is Beautiful” there. Built in 1925, the Rialto is not considered an equity waiver theater and seats  1,200 (equity-waiver are 99 seats or less).

“La La Land” showed a beautiful side of Los Angeles, not totally my side of La La Land, but still one I recognize, filled with song and the possibility of dance. Here Chazelle pushes the movie musical forward in a seductive nostalgia for Hollywood, artistic purity and young love. Dance anywhere and dance when you are young and in love. Young love may not be forever, but it will still be lovely.

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