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La La Land sees Old Hollywood magic giving way to modern melancholy

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play aspiring artists caught between their own romance and love of their art.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

La La Land opens with a large-scale song-and-dance number on a Los Angeles freeway. Young people aspiring to a life in show business, but currently just stuck in gridlock, climb out of their cars and dance on the rooftops, singing about big dreams and the California sunshine. It’s a scene straight out of an old-school movie musical, which is exactly the point: La La Land is a romance, and everyone is in love with everything — most of all, old Hollywood dreams. It is, quite simply, magic.



“Magic” does not mean “perfect,” however. La La Land is not a perfect movie, but it is imbued with blue-tinged joy. It’s about audacious hopes and bittersweet love, with a distinctly 21st-century twist. It doesn’t feel fake or cheap. It’s a shot of optimism that’s been dosed with realism.

La La Land is a bunch of love stories loaded into one

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), La La Land is a boy-meets-girl story about Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), a pair of starry-eyed dreamers who meet in the first scene’s gridlock. Road rage takes over. (You know from this scene that they’re fated to be together.) For months, they keep bumping into each other all over Los Angeles, and slowly their mutual antipathy turns to flirtation and, from there, to love.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land.

But in the meantime, Mia is trudging the endless audition trail, leaving casting rooms to discover a dozen or more of her own doppelgängers sitting in the hallway, waiting to audition themselves. She wants to be an actor. It’s what makes her heart beat faster, what gets her out of bed in the morning. But to make ends meet and pay rent (on the apartment she shares with three other girls), she has to work in the coffee shop on a big-studio backlot, watching as the stars she admires go by.

Sebastian’s heart, meanwhile, belongs to jazz. But after being taken for a ride by a shady business deal, he’s playing for tips in restaurants and in cover bands for parties. He’s trying to keep body and soul together, all the while dreaming of opening a jazz club. (One in which — and this is very important to him — they will serve chicken.)

Mia and Sebastian’s romance is the soul of the movie, and also provides its most captivating musical moments: The best may be when Sebastian and Mia finally acknowledge their affections in the most wonderfully backhanded way, pooh-poohing the LA sunset and each other before they eventually start tap-dancing in sync. In another scene, they float off into magical realism against a starlit sky at Griffith Observatory. (The movie is as much a love letter to a mythical Los Angeles as anything else.)

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land.

But the course of true love is bumpy, as we know, and things start to take a turn when Sebastian’s nemesis Keith (John Legend) shows up and offers him a spot playing in his combo, which comes with money and strings attached. And Mia’s attempt to circumvent the Hollywood runaround by mounting her own one-woman show — with Sebastian’s encouragement — stresses her out as she tries to pull the pieces together without Sebastian’s constant, affirming presence. Which love story will win out: theirs, or the one they both sustain with their art?

La La Land isn’t a love triangle so much as a many-pointed love star: Mia and Sebastian, Mia and acting, Sebastian and jazz, Sebastian and Mia and the dream of a life of making beautiful things in the world, in a city of stars.

La La Land is a movie musical, but it’s anything but escapist

All the singing and dancing adds charm to La La Land, to be sure. Gosling and Stone aren’t the greatest at either of those — notes fall flat, steps are a bit tentative — but that seems like the point: They’re struggling, and success is in no way a guarantee.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land.

More important than the charm factor is that La La Land’s song-and-dance elements hark back to the glory days of Hollywood musicals, which were at their best during hard times, when people wanted not only to escape their troubles but also be reminded there was some goodness in the world. Manohla Dargis wrote at the New York Times about this:

When I went to see “La La Land” again, I was in a terrible state, and this time I just fell into it, gratefully. I surrendered. Afterward, I realized that this must have been what it was like to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers during the Great Depression . . .

. . . Contemporary American movies could use more s’wonderful, more music and dance, and way, way more surrealism. They’re too dull, too ordinary and too straight, whether they’re mired in superhero clichés or remodeled kitchen-sink realism. One of the transformative pleasures of musicals is that even at their most choreographed, they break from conformity, the dos and don’ts of a regimented life, suggesting the possibility that everyone can move to her own beat.

The feeling of pleasure — not a cheap thrill ride or even catharsis, but being bathed in a happy, warm glow — is one of the best things cinema can evoke. The opportunity La La Land provides, to let its colors and sounds and surprises wash over you, feels almost like a public service in December 2016. It’s a reminder that there’s wonder out there, moments of surprise.

But don’t call it escapism. La La Land isn’t a wish-fulfillment fantasy; in fact, ambitious young people living in 2016 may find themselves a bit downcast after La La Land. Paying the bills is harder than it used to be, especially if you also have those behemoth student loan bills looming over the first 10 years of your career, and if you don’t have a safety net — well, forget it.

Being a working young artist is even more difficult. Digital distribution platforms lower the bar to entry but raise the bar for gaining an audience, especially for those who don’t specialize in vulgarity or ideologically one-note work (and that’s without any money involved). Day jobs are hard to find, and they don’t leave a lot of headspace for creative work. The influx of starry-eyed dreamers to places like Los Angeles and New York City never slows down, but the outflow is pretty steady.

In La La Land, contemporary struggles are entwined with Hollywood history

La La Land writer-director Chazelle was born in 1985, which makes him a millennial. He’s had a more charmed entry to success than most, with the critically acclaimed and beloved Whiplash to his name before he turned 30. But you get the sense from La La Land that he knows the landscape intimately. There’s an emotional familiarity with disappointment running through the film — the pain of knowing that you’re really good at what you do, but so is everyone else, and there’s no guarantee that your work will see the light of day.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land.

Cleverly, La La Land doesn’t get too self-conscious about this distinctively 2016 theme, in the end twisting the bittersweetness of this struggle back into the romance. But the costume design tells the story: Mia’s style quietly creeps forward from the 1930s to today, subtly quoting every decade. This struggle for success is an old story, repeated since Hollywood’s golden age, but its distinctive modern contours are what make La La Land resonant today.

The movie’s nostalgic style doesn’t leave contemporary struggles in the dust; instead, it infuses them with new meaning. There’s a way to transform a budget-friendly can of beans, a secondhand dress, and a lousy audition into magic, says La La Land: Think of them as part of a melancholy love affair — and whenever you can, sing to your dreams.

La La Land opens in theaters on December 8, 2016.

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