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La La Land (2016)

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in a classic musical that was shot in and made for the modern day.

Recap

Two LA cliche’s meet in this stylized version of the city. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress working as a barista in between auditions. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling jazz pianist who’s love of pure, traditional jazz constantly rubs his employers the wrong way. The movie opens with musical depictions of a day in LA and shows how Mia and Sebastian are both flying in each other’s orbit. They first cross paths when Mia overhears Sebastian playing some free form Jazz in  a bar and walks in to try to talk to him. Unfortunately, Sebastian was fired for playing Jazz instead of Christmas standards and storms past Mia, bumping her on the way out. This is a blow to Mia, who’s already experienced a day full of rejections.

They actually talk when Mia sees Sebastian playing the keytar in an 80’s cover band. She mocks him to get revenge for her being a jerk the last time they met, but they end up walking out of the party together and sharing a lovely LA skyline. One thing leads to another and Mia ends up leaving her stuffy boyfriend for the handsome young musician who teaches her to love Jazz music. The two young artists both encourage and nourish each other’s dreams. Sebastian wants to own a jazz club one day, while Mia dreams of making it big.

After a few seasons of romantic bliss, success enters the picture and strains their love affair. Sebastian books a gig with a modern jazz group led by his old friend Keith (John Legend). The job takes him away from home for months at a time, while Mia stops taking auditions to work on a one woman show. Mia’s show bombs while Sebastian is too busy with his band to make it. They get into a series of fights, leading them to a break up. While in the midst of the break-up, Sebastian gets a call for Mia from a producer who happened to see her show and wants to bring Mia into a movie project that would be developed around her. Sebastian basically drags Mia to the audition and she gets the part.

At that point, Mia and Sebastian face the fact that they can’t be together while Mia is working on the movie which is filming in France), and they agree to just let things take their course. Flash forward a few years, and Mia has become a big star. She’s married (not to Sebastian) with a daughter. Sebastian has finally opened up the Jazz club he always wanted and even followed Mia’s suggestion to call it “Seb’s”. Mia and her husband blow off an engagement due to LA traffic and end up wandering into the bar, not realizing what it is. Mia is taken aback when she realizes who’s club they’ve walked into. When Sebastian gets up on stage to in between acts, he sees Mia in the crowd. He sits down at the piano and plays the same theme that he was playing that first lured Mia in. As the music plays, Mia and Sebastian’s story replays on screen. In this shortened version, we see them dance together through the phases of their relationship but, this time, every fight or bump in the road is replaced with a happier alternative. It’s almost as if the lives they are currently living are just a bad dream. Ultimately, the song ends and we are taken back to reality. After experiencing Sebastian’s music again, Mia decides that she and her husband should leave. As she goes, Mia and Sebastian take one last look at each other and smile.

What did I think?

This was one of my favorite movies of 2016. I’m a fan of classic musicals, independent films, and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone; so I had been looking forward to this movie since last year. I loved the concept of seeing modern actors trying to tackle the classic movie musical genre but, of course, you never really know how something like this will come together. Fortunately, the movie didn’t disappoint. It completely nailed the style of the movies it was trying to emulate. At the same time, it wasn’t so traditional that it wouldn’t appeal to modern movie-goers. The music, the wardrobe, and the scenery are all unmistakably modern while maintaining a classic flare that stays just shy of feeling like a hipster motif.

One of the more impressive elements of the movie was the way that the leads (Gosling and Stone) embraced the idea of representing the classic actor “Triple Threat” (acting, singing and dancing). While neither of them are the strongest in the area of singing or dancing, they’re definitely no slouches. I would say that Stone is the better singer while Gosling was almost a surprisingly good dancer. Gosling even took his performance a step further by learning to play jazz piano and doing all of his on screen playing (a fact that has been confirmed by the movie’s director). Singing and dancing aside, their acting and on screen chemistry is as strong here as it’s ever been. They do a great job of bringing their characters and their relationship to life. This is particularly impressive because a musical has less screen time dedicated to that kind of thing compared to other movies.

Even if the leads hadn’t been able to deliver such great performances, the musical numbers would’ve made the movie worth it. While this movie isn’t wall-to-wall singing and dancing, every number it has is memorable. “Another Day of Sun”, “Someone in the Crowd”, “A Lovely Night” and “Planetarium” are all beautifully choreographed, shot and performed musical numbers. They pay homage not only to the older musicals like Singing in the Rain, but also more recent musical numbers like those in Fame. All of this is done in setting that feels very stylish and personal, which is common for independent films. The environment of LA is definitely lovingly highlighted throughout these numbers, and entire movie. These numbers are the best thing about the movie and I’ve found myself absentmindedly humming these tunes on more than one occasion.

There are two places where the movie does feel like it trips over itself. The first is with the aspect of the story involving Keith and his “modern” jazz. Because the movie that preaches so much about the preservation of reverence of Jazz, it treats Keith’s music as “bad”. However, that music is written and performed by John Legend. As you’d expect, you don’t bring John Legend onto a movie to have him write a bad song. Really, the song is just more pop than traditional, but that doesn’t change the way that the movie frames it through the eyes of Sebastian and Mia. To them, the music is oppressive and destructive, even if it is catchy to the audience. It’s just a little emotionally confusing.

The other issue is also related to emotional confusion. The end of the movie gives viewers a traditional musical happy ending. But modern movies don’t rely on happy endings that absolve characters of the consequences of the choices that they’ve made. They rely on pragmatic endings that force characters to live with those consequences. To that end, there is no “happy ending” for Sebastian and Mia as a couple. They don’t get to live happily ever after with each other. Instead, more realistically, they are left with only their memories of each other and how they changed each others’ lives. It feels a little bit more authentic but, at the same time, this is a movie so full of whimsy that some viewers will likely feel like the authenticity betrays the tone of the movie. Personally, I don’t feel that way, but I understand those that do.

Regardless of how you feel about the ending, this movie will leave a mark on you. It’s tied with Sing Street for the most “smile inducing” movie of the year. It’s sure to be an awards season darling. The only people that wouldn’t like this movie are people who just hate musicals on principle. You know, people who hate fun and whimsy. So, unless you’re a person who hates fun and whimsy, i.e. a monster, you should definitely see this movie.

Arrival (2016)

Arrival (2016)
9.56

Story / Plot

9/10

    Characters

    9/10

      Visuals

      10/10

        Music / Audio

        10/10

          Entertainment

          10/10

            Pros

            • A perfect blend of classic ideas and a modern setting
            • Gosling and Stone may not be the
            • Amazingly colored and stylized scenes make LA look a lot better than it has any right to.
            • Great musical numbers and some catchy themes

            Cons

            • Outside of the ending, a lot of the plot is pretty predictable. But, that's normal for a musical.
            • Some people will likely want the movie to have ended 5 minutes or so sooner than it does.
            • Movie does rely heavily on a few musical themes. For my taste, I could've used one or two more songs to round out the set.
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