The year is coming to an end, but that hasn’t stopped The Anticipated from returning, this time with a musical aiming to be a crowd pleaser, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. The director of Whiplash is back again to show his love for performers, and his new film is sprinkled with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone magic. Did this film sparkle and shine or did it fall flat? Let’s get to finding out.
Serious Spoilers Ahead: Because I Want to Talk About the End of This Movie.
La La Land (December 9th 2016)
How was it?
I am going to preface all of this by simply acknowledging that a film like this was always going to have a bit of an advantage with someone like me. It’s a musical love letter to dreamers and creative people, so I was prepped to like this movie. Still, that doesn’t always mean anything; there are plenty of movies that by all accounts I should love, but which have for whatever reason left me cold (Where The Wild Things Are for example), so this could have all gone very wrong… but it did not. La La Land is incredible. Chazelle brings another story about the cost of being a great person who pursues his or her dreams, but does so with the flair and glamour of Hollywood and musicals as opposed to the nervous tension of JK Simmons throwing chairs at people. (Though I can’t say I didn’t wish that also happened in this movie, because all movies would be improved by JK Simmons throwing a chair at someone.) Chazelle shows admirable confidence throughout the film, attacking his subject with gusto.
Once again Chazelle focuses more on performers, but the film shows affection for all creative types struggling to achieve their dreams. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are perfect as (respectively) aspiring actress Mia and struggling jazz musician Sebastian. They each bring a unique flair to their role, and their chemistry on-screen is very impressive. They would be the best part of this movie, except that the music in this film is incredible. From the very beginning, the film starts with a bang with the exquisitely choreographed and catchy “Another Day of Sun,” which makes it clear that this movie is going all in. That energy mostly carries through the entire movie. I never thought the brilliant songs of Moana could be pushed out of my primary humming head space (especially so quickly), but La La Land pulled it off.
Then there is the end of this film–and oh boy, what an ending. Chazelle’s best work in his first film, Whiplash, comes in the the final scene of the movie, where (Whiplash spoilers) Miles Teller’s Andrew unleashes a spellbinding drum solo that calls into question everything you think about JK Simmons’s character’s methods, because dear God, they yielded glorious results. The drum solo is stunning, and leaves a real mark on you as the film ends. Chazelle ups the ante in La La Land as he makes it clear that this is not a simple girl meets boy love story, but instead a bittersweet love letter to dreams and the dreamers that make them come true. First Emma Stone’s “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” takes all the struggles and pent up feelings that all dreamers feel at some point and unleashes them in a chill-inducing song that sticks with you at your core. Then there is the final sequence of the movie, which really brings the film’s message home.
Spoilers Ahead You Have Been Warned Twice Now
The film time-jumps in order to bring things full circle, as Mia returns to LA as a world-famous actress who is now the person being offered free drinks by aspiring actors and actresses working the coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot. More importantly, she goes to her hotel, where she kisses her husband–who is not in fact Sebastian, but a man named David (played by Tom Everett Scott, who I have to give credit for taking the role of the man that everyone is going to fucking hate). Then as a kicker, Mia and David end up in a jazz club owned by Sebastian and named “Seb’s,” as Mia had suggested it be called. The two former lovers then share a look as Sebastian plays a number that reflects all of the questions and regrets each might have from their relationship and the past five years. This song is both invigorating and devastating all at the same time, as it shows a world in which the two stayed together and now it was the two of them at this club as a married couple–but with the very key difference that, although Mia has still achieved her dream, Sebastian has not.
This can simply be interpreted as a way of showing that one of them would have had to sacrifice their dreams to have made their relationship work, but I found the fact that it was Sebastian in the fantasy world to be a striking choice. Outside the fantasy, Mia did achieve a version of her dreams, both professionally and by being happily married, while the same can’t be said of Sebastian. The fantasy sequence suggests that he would have had to give up on what he wanted in order to be with her. This presents a nuanced message that’s rather unique: while all dreamers have to sacrifice to get what they want, some have to sacrifice more than others. It’s a gut punch in the movie, and how it affects you may vary. There is a good chance when I have this movie to study, I will watch this final sequences and really break down what is happening, but for now the scene works so perfectly because of how it manages to be poignant, yet still hopeful. This is because they both do achieve their creative dreams, and that does mean something. As Mia leaves the club and turns one last time to stare at Sebastian, and he returns her stare, she is troubled… until he smiles, reassuring her that everything worked out the best it could, and that each of them can reflect on what could have been without letting it mar their current happiness. It is such a nuanced message that goes against the simple happy or sad ending stereotypes–instead, this is an ending of bittersweet blessings that still shines.
Isn’t this based on…?
Nothing! It is a love letter to Hollywood and creators, so there are a lot of homages and nice little references in the movie, but this is an original idea.
Did it warrant its selection in The Anticipated?
Definitely. Chazelle proved that he is a talent that will be reckoned with for years to come, and one has to wonder what he can do once he has felt he has done enough analyzing the costs of creative success and genius (though if he wants to keep doing so for a couple more films, go on ahead). The music for the film is going to be a part of Hollywood lore for years to come, and this film is likely to be one of the key movies remembered from 2016 (assuming history doesn’t just pretend this year never happened–uh, and assuming there is still a history). At worse this movie is going to get loads of award nominations, with it likely winning quite a few along the way. This is about as creatively successful a film one could ask for, a movie that mostly lived up to the massive hype, and I have absolutely no reservations about how excited I was to see it coming into this year.
On top of all this there are two other key factors. One, this film found the perfect way to utilize Emma Stone’s unique talents, which has at times languished the last few years. When in the movie Sebastian tells Mia that she should write her own play so she can create a role that suits her talent, I couldn’t help but think how that applied to Stone as well. Gosling is also quite good in this movie, but other films in the past have shown how he can be best utilized, so this film simply piggybacked off those things to allow him to create a unique character–one that I will admit I probably need to watch the film again to fully get how impressive he is. Stone, though, shines much more clearly, and hopefully she will be able to build off of this to keep doing roles going forward that suit her talents.
The second thing is, this film has the potential to be way more financially successful than anyone may have thought. La La Land has made a little over five million dollars already, which doesn’t sound like a lot by box office standards until you realize that domestically it has only opened in 200 theatres (and only five its opening weekend). The film is still set to expand quite a bit, and once it does, it could use its strong word of mouth to be quite successful, especially for a film like this with the modest budget of only $30 million. It could end up being one of those movies that can hit that sweet spot of financial and critical success that really resonates with both critics and everyday moviegoers, which is the number one kind of movie 2016 has really struggled to produce. So if La La Land can become that movie, it will prove to be even more of a success than it already is.
Would I recommend it to others?
Yes, this is a great movie, and for the most part great fun. It opens the veil on a world of struggling performers, showing not only their troubles but also the spellbinding allure that draws people to Hollywood everyday. The music is amazing, and unless you simply hate musicals, this is a movie you will enjoy.
How would I rate it?
This rating comes down to two factors, in terms of how you balance the two sets of expectations that emerged for this movie. The first are the general expectations; it looked really good and everyone was excited for Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash. These were high, but reasonable. Then there were the expectations that came from the festival circuit, where this film was so beloved that you had stories like Tom Hanks gushing about the film during a Q&A for his own movie, Sully. When the film was pushed back from its original release date, that gave the festival buzz time to build to an unsustainable level by the time it actually was released. Now, La La Land did about as good a job as one can expect meeting both expectations, but the impossible hype did put this film on a pedestal it couldn’t quite reach. Still, on the handy Anticipation Meter it receives 9.5 tap dancing numbers out of 10. This film is incredible, and the early box office returns have been massive, despite only being on a small number of screens. Combine this with its award buzz, and the film is a great success, even balanced against massive expectations.
For an actual rating: This is one of the best films of the year, and the perfect build from the high level of quality Chazelle achieved with Whiplash. It looks gorgeous. The music is incredible, and will stick in your head for days and days. Stone and Gosling are amazing in their lead roles, and this film manages to be bittersweet and hopeful all at the same time. So it easily gets 4 stars out of 4. Overall, this film manages to be a different kind of love story, more about the love of dreamers and performers than the love between two people. It is an impressive feat that is absolutely going to deserve any recognition it receives. The film does have some issues, particularly that the middle of the film has trouble standing up to the great beginning and ending, but even that is not all that noticeable because the pacing of the film still feels mostly right.
That’s it for this edition of The Anticipated. Up next we have Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Is this the gritty (well, as gritty as Star Wars can be) war story that the Star Wars world has been crying out for, or a misfire? Find out when The Anticipated returns.
Check out the soundtrack on vinyl, like a true audiophile should: