(Lainey: Sarah texted me right after the La La Land screening yesterday to tell me she liked it. “You liked a musical?” I started laughing. Because if Sarah couldn’t find a way to loathe a musical, it says something about the musical. This is why La La Land and Emma Stone are currently the frontrunners for Oscar. And now… Sarah’s review.)
I don’t like musicals. I find it weird and off-putting when people burst into song during mundane tasks. So during the opening number of La La Land, I thought I was in for a bad time, as hundreds of people get out of their cars, stuck in a traffic jam on an LA freeway, and start singing and dancing. By the time the guy parkour-dancing over the cars showed up, I was convinced La La Land isn’t for me. But then it took a turn and I was sucked in. Fans of musicals will definitely enjoy the hell out of it, but even non-fans can get swept up in the story of Sebastian and Mia.
Ryan Gosling stars as Sebastian, a jazz musician just this side of bitter, playing for tips at a restaurant while he dreams of opening his own club someday. (JK Simmons, Whiplash Oscar winner, shows up for a cameo as Sebastian’s boss.) And Emma Stone stars as Mia, a would-be actress doing time as a barista on the Warner Brothers lot. Neither one are strong singers, though Stone is better than Gosling, but their voices harmonize well and Stone and Gosling are such a winsome screen couple it’s impossible not to root for them to get together.
Their first couple meetings don’t go so well, but then they get their sh*t together and begin dating, and La La Land is basically a love letter to Golden Age musicals with a contemporary twist. There are lavish dance sequences, spunky duets, and heartbreaking solos, and underneath it all is a sly sense of humor, gently mocking Los Angeles, actors, and jazz. Written and directed by Damian Chazelle (Whiplash), La La Land isn’t mean-spirited in the slightest, but Chazelle doesn’t sacrifice his critical eye just because he happens to love a thing.
La La Land is about dreams, both pursued and unfulfilled, and I was willing to go along with it mostly because of the gorgeous visuals and the combined force of Stone and Gosling, but the third act shift takes the film to another level. Sebastian sells out in order to make a real living, and Mia gives up after lackluster response to her one woman show, and it seems like they’ll just be two more victims of the merciless Hollywood grind.
But then Mia gets a break, and Stone sings the song Audition, shot in one take and performed much less histrionically than Anne Hathaway singing I Dreamed A Dream in Les Miserables, and La La Land becomes altogether sweeter and more melancholy—sometimes dreams come at a price. The poignancy that comes in at the end is saved from melodrama or cheesiness by Stone and Gosling. Gosling might not be a great singer—though he’s nowhere near as bad as Russell Crowe—but his acting could not be better. His final moments on screen will stick with you for a while. And Stone has never been better, running the gamut from physical comedy to dead serious dramatic moments, and equally good at all of it. Gosling is good but this is Stone’s showcase.
Stone and Gosling, at the top of their respective games, are delightful to watch together. And “Audition” is going to be sung enthusiastically by every musical theater nerd in the land, destined to be run into the ground like Let It Go and the entire Hamilton songbook. From the slightly-left-of-reality production design to the bold color scheme to the elaborate dance numbers, this film is basically visual candy. But as delightful as La La Land is, it’s the final moments that take it from pleasant distraction to something much deeper and more bittersweet.