“People are passionate about what other people are passionate about. You remind people of what they forgot.”
There is always some debate about a big picture as to whether it can still play both its themes and appeal to a popular-minded crowd. Well, this excellent homage to classic Hollywood reaffirmed as a place of hope and beauty, carries its message through, and manages its own dazzling presentation with wit, style, and culture, further boosting the reputations of Stone and Gosling, and introducing back into our collective consciousness the grand-old-style of a Hollywood musical, a fitting entertainment for the whole family.
It portrays the romance of an aspiring jazz pianist, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and an actress/playwright, Mia (Emma Stone) as they journey through the excitements, parties, and disappointments of Los Angeles, hoping for fame, stardom, and the freedom to be themselves. Sebastian struggles with minor gigs all the while saving his pennies to open up his own club someday, a club that’s pure jazz, that does not cater to unsophisticated tastes, that’s more in line with his vision as an artist. Mia works as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot to support herself as she pursues her career as an actress, going to auditions and paying her dues, being invited to the occasional party where she hopes to meet somebody who can help her career.
After an unceremonious encounter, the two formally meet at a party in which Sebastian is the keyboardist in the band and after a rocky start, the two begin a relationship, having in common their appreciation of what makes entertainment truly grand, and what qualifies as authentic in a city where everybody wants to be a star. Everything goes fine, with Sebastian supporting Mia throughout the ordeal of writing and performing in her own one-woman play, until Sebastian is offered a steady, paying gig as the keyboardist of a jazz-rock fusion band headed by Keith (John Legend). Mia knows it’s not really what Sebastian wants to do, he would rather stay close to his roots, but he takes it for the money, creating a controversy in their relationship.
Stone’s charm, casual and truly pleased, continues to revel in its freedom on screen. Ultimately winning the Academy Award for best actress, she makes clear her role as an everywoman, yet as somebody to whom anything can happen. Meanwhile, Ryan Gosling is not a singer, not a terrible dancer, a great actor, and the perfect choice for this manic and modern creative. He learned piano for this role, and his immersion pays off, creating a character that’s actually just as immersed in his own function as an honest savior of the legitimate.
“La La Land” has more to do with the details of finding stardom and artistic greatness in the modern world, all the while, finding the ability to paint with broad strokes what that actually means. For Sebastian, it means being in charge of his own career, and being allowed to play the music he truly loves. For Mia, it means being famous and working regularly, being tired of the empty, shallow parties she goes to and the people she gets stuck with.
Mia and Sebastian argue over what it means to be a legitimate artist, and the film reaffirms the ethics of making it in America and what those aspirants truly value. There are counterpoints offered however, saying Keith to Sebastian on the subject of his taste in jazz, “how are you going to be a revolutionist if you’re such a traditionalist?” Trying to balance its own originality with the originality of its characters, “La La Land” walks this fine line perfectly, and delivers personalities that are at once believable and sympathetic, yet also distant from us in their earnestness. Of Los Angeles, Sebastian says, “they worship everything and they value nothing,” further secluding himself into an artistic cocoon of his own taste and belief. Again he is brooding and serious, yet possible, some rare, reclusive character we could meet on his way to the big-times.
Overall, “La La Land” is a much worthy picture to see, a good use of two hours, and one of the worthiest films in recent memory. Easily riffing through its themes of the artist’s legitimacy, the effort required to obtain the American Dream, and irresistible pleasure of our dreams of fame and fortune, it wins our hearts and minds, and inspires us to find in ourselves what makes us feel young and alive.
By Matthew C. Brock