The Great Depression had Shirley Temple. World War II had Fred and Ginger. Now, right on cue, Hollywood has produced a ray of sunshine as an antidote to troubled times. If “La La Land” feels like a throwback, that’s because it is, a throwback to times when going to the movies lifted your spirits instead of sinking them. It’s nostalgic in the same way a hipster combing through vinyl records in a record shop coffee house is nostalgic. It picks and chooses what it wants to remember about the past and puts a decidedly modern spin on the treasures it decides to keep.
To say the film is a musical is an understatement. It’s more of a musical hybrid. There are terrific song and dance numbers, scenes where lovers waltz across a night sky or tap their way through a lovely evening. But equally important are the jazz sets, instrumental music that forms the backbone for some of the most important scenes. The movie is about a jazz pianist and an old-time Hollywood gal falling in love, and the score follows suit, blending the two styles into a whole.
The song and dance numbers are too much fun, starting with the delightful opening sequence “Another Day of Sun.” It takes the trope of a big opening number and puts it smack-dab in the middle of the most Los Angeles of settings: a freeway traffic jam. You can almost feel spirits lift as the magic takes hold through the power of song.
An Old Story New Again
The plot follows an old story, around as long as little girls have dreamed of stardom on the silver screen. It’s also a simple story, without all the sci-fi, suspense, plot twists, and thundering action we’ve come to expect from blockbuster movies.
Mia (Emma Stone) serves up lattes to the rich and famous at a coffee shop on a studio set. When she’s not wearing an apron, she auditions for her own chance at the big time. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist with a soul full of great jazz but an empty wallet. The two bounce around Los Angeles, and into each other, in a sort of musical version of “When Harry Met Sally.” Los Angeles brings them together, and Hollywood threatens to tear them apart.
The sweetness is in the depiction of falling in love, which is longingly, achingly similar to the great romance movies of the 1940s and 1950s. They waltz and tango their way into each other’s hearts, all building to a sweet and innocent kiss. There’s no raunchy sexual scenes, no adult-themed angst. This movie is PG-13, and one you could watch with your grandma or kiddo.
It does show the two getting into bed together, talking like an old married couple although they are not married. It has a few swear words along the lines of “asshole,” which is kind of a jarring moment in a very throwback film. Astaire would never have said “asshole.” But overall, the film feels sweet, innocent, and the opposite of cynical.
What Are the Dreams Worth Dreaming?
That’s not to say it’s perfect. The funny playfulness of the first act disappears by the third, leaving those dancing drivers of the opening scene sadly without counterparts in the last. Some of the relational drama begins to drag as well. It could use a tongue-in-cheek pick-me-up. But you hardly notice because the music keeps coming and the dream keeps unfolding.
Part of the hyperbolic adoration this movie is receiving, which may propel it into the Oscars, is borne of the simple fact it’s about Hollywood. Hollywood loves nothing more than movies about itself, and movie critics are very much metaphorical citizens of Hollywood. The movie does the whole “dream big dreams and chase them hard” mantra with which Hollywood loves to pat itself on the back, but it does it well.
At its core, it is not a wrong message, although it often becomes a part of entitlement philosophy. The film transcends that to a degree. If we’re not put on earth to chase big dreams, really, what is the point?
However, the film asks an even bigger question, one as pertinent to our times as a Brooklynite trying to connect to the earth hops on his balcony. In all this dream-chasing, where is love? And what if instead of a blissful career your dream becomes—inexorably, inescapably—a person? That is a true question of our times, and a note this film sings just right. Put away your addiction to cynicism and go see it.