The nickname for the California town whose literal translation is “City of Angels” comes from its initials: LA for Los Angeles. But “La La Land” also refers to the culture of its most notable industry, whether the reference is to the magic of its images of pretty people doing pretty things or to the instability of the various deals, relationships, and people behind them. The title of this exquisite film from writer/director Damien Chazelle refers to all of that and to the “la la” of music as well. Its bravura, breathtaking opening scene introduces us to the world of the story, with one of LA’s defining experiences — being stuck in traffic on a sunny day — transforming into a stunning, joyous, candy-colored musical number, with the camera swooping along as a part of the choreography in, apparently, one long shot.
Among the Angelenos on the 105 Freeway are barrista and aspiring actress Mia (Best Actress Oscar winner Emma Stone), rehearsing some dialog for an upcoming audition, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician with retro taste, as we can see from his watch, ring, and car. He honks the horn. She flips him the finger. They go their separate ways and we follow her to work at a coffee shop on a movie studio lot, near the window where Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman looked out as the Germans marched into Paris in “Casablanca.” The magic of movies — both the way they move and inspire us and the gulf between illusion and reality — shimmer throughout the film.
Mia and Sebastian bump into each other (once literally) a few more times, as we see each of them struggle. He wants to own a jazz club, but his business partner has betrayed him and he has had to take a job playing bland Christmas tunes in a restaurant for a demanding boss (played by J.K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for Chazelle’s first film, “Whiplash”). He can’t help himself, and seques into jazz, just as Mia wanders in and hears him. She is transfixed. He is fired.
They meet up again when he is playing another demeaning gig — an 80’s cover band performing at a party. And then, after another party, he chivalrously walks her to her car, and they begin to like each other — so much that they swing into a cheeky song and dance about how much they don’t. The song is “A Lovely Night,” and in the classic tradition of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tunes like “A Fine Romance.” The lyrics may suggest they have no interest in each other, but we and they know from the way their dance seems so effortless, that it is very much the contrary.
The story moves through the seasons (though of course the weather never changes) and soon Mia and Sebastian are happily living together and encouraging each other. But he feels pressure to take a job with an old friend (John Legend) that means good money but constant travel. And good intentions and true affection are sometimes not enough.
Chazelle’s deep and spacious romanticism includes the city and its dreamers and music and movies and love itself. There are dozens of sure-handed, thoughtful touches, from the imperfect perfection of the singing and dancing, which lends an intimate, accessible quality, to the telling glimpses of life in Hollywood — the brief glimpse of a big star or a scene being filmed, the humiliation of auditions, the people who get halfway through a pastry and then demand their money back because it is not gluten-free, the endless wait for the valet parking after a party, the way Mia’s clothes go from bright primary colors to patterns, subdued hues, and then black and white. The songs, with music by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are captivating and evocative. Sebastian walks along the pier, whistling and then singing about whether he dares to hope. Mia and her roommates wear bright, primary-colored dresses and sing about going out to a party. And in one gorgeous number, the exhilaration of love is made literal as the couple dance up into the stars of the Griffith Observatory.
There are tributes/references to classic films like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” but this movie is not derivative. The storyline is deceptively simple, but the specificity of the detail, depth of understanding, and beautiful performances create true movie magic. “La La Land” is narratively ambitious and emotionally resonant, with a final ten minutes that are pure, wistful poetry. Chazelle and Hurwitz understand that some feelings are just so big they have to be sung and danced. And this movie made me so happy I wanted to create a musical number of my own. But I settled for watching this more two more times instead.
Parents should know that this film includes brief strong language and some emotional confrontations.
Family discussion: What did Mia and Sebastian learn from each other? How did their support for each other’s dreams change their careers? How did the music help tell the story?
If you like this, try: “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” — both inspirations for this film