A Star is Torn

La La Land a film by Damien Chazelle.  With Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt. *****

I’ve said so many times that a movie is not this that I want to be clear when one is: this is the feel-good movie of the year, 2016, 2017, whatever year you got.  From the moment it opens with a dance number in the midst of a traffic jam on a steamy Los Angeles freeway, La La Land  is full of life, and that’s what we want in a movie: forget about love, romance, success; we want energy, we want the thing to move.

There are many moments that are just plain funny, or fun (Ryan Gosling has a way of doing double takes that I haven’t seen since slapstick comedy); I often found myself laughing out loud (though the rest of the audience wasn’t necessarily laughing with me).  The lead actors have terrific chemistry, have been in two movies together before; Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone seem made for each other, even in dance numbers, though neither is trained as a dancer.  And though the ending is bittersweet, it’s sweet in the right direction: we’re smiling as tears come to our eyes.  It’s a good kind of sad.

La La Land counters my primary objection to so many Hollywood movies, that all the actors are so good looking (walk down the street of whatever city you live in; is every person you see good-looking?); this is a movie about LA, where everybody has to be good-looking, because they’re all trying to get into the movies (though the actors in that first dance number come in all shapes and sizes, they all look great.  They’re attractive people).  I would even say that, of the four aspiring actresses/roommates that we meet at the beginning of the movie, Emma Stone is the least good looking, at least traditionally so.  There’s something vulnerable and touchy about her face that makes her a wonderful actress, but goes against the traditional view of glamor.

Mia (Stone) is a barista[1] at a coffee shop on a Hollywood lot, dishing out lattes to the stars.  She also goes to auditions whenever she can, where she tries for any number of roles, and she’s great; in every audition, I would have given her the part (the auditions themselves are funny.  The lines are often priceless).  But she’s getting nowhere; she dropped out of college to become an actress, has been trying for years and seems not to have gotten a single part.

Sebastian (Gosling) is a piano player obsessed with jazz.  He wants to be a serious musician, to the point where he listens to famous solos and tries to duplicate them, but his real dream is to open a small bar (he even has a terrible name planned for it, Chicken on a Stick), where people will play and enjoy real jazz, which even he sees as a dying art form.  As the movie opens he’s playing Christmas music in an LA bar, though he hates the work, and when he finally takes off and improvises, he gets fired (not for the first time), though he also meets Mia, who heard the music from outside and wandered in.

They don’t like each other at first—of course!—but that’s because they’re so ambitious and disappointed with the way things are working out.  After they’ve fallen in love—as we knew they would—he has some suggestions for her (why not write your own scripts?  That’s how your interest in drama got started), and she has some for him (why not take the job with the guy who isn’t quite playing jazz, but is offering money, and a kind of success?).  They’re good for each other because they understand ambition and can see the other’s hidden strength.

So this is a movie about making it in show business, as if we already haven’t had several dozen of those, and it doesn’t answer the other objection I often have about young movie talent: their work references nothing but movies–which they always know extremely well—and doesn’t have anything to do with everyday life.  There are references to other movies all through this one, overt ones (“That’s the window that was in Casablanca”) and more subtle ones (a dance montage where there’s an image from The Red Balloon and another that echoes Funny Face).  So writer/director Damien Chazelle seems to be creating out of his show biz background, as he also seems to have done in his first film, Whiplash, but we’ll give him a pass for now.  In the future he’s got to get into the nitty gritty of life, but at the moment we’ll let him write about young people trying to make it, because he does it so well.

Eventually Sebastian plays with a band that is doing well, and making money, but he’s traveling all over the country, with no apparent end in sight.  The only way he’s going to get out of that is if the band fails, and of course Mia doesn’t want that.  Mia in the meantime is working on her one-woman show, which we don’t actually see, and which is apparently a total flop, but somebody who does see it likes it, or likes her . . .   So she gets the big break that Hollywood movies are always ultimately about.  (But she doesn’t then descend into alcoholism and pill taking and multiple marriages, the way so many of these movies go.)

The film turns into a movie about the obsessions so many millennials seem to face, in a variety of fields other than show biz.  Should I do the thing I always wanted to do, the thing my parents and teachers and friends always wanted me to do, or should I sell out and do this other thing that makes money?  That’s one big question in the film.  The other is: If I do what I wanna do, and you do what you wanna do, we may not be able to stay together.  Because my thing, at least at the moment, is in Paris, and yours involves traveling all over the U.S., and we love each other, but jeez, I always wanted to do this thing.  What’s going to happen?

Chazelle makes a movie about this never-ending dilemma, and he faces these questions in a basically serious way, but he also stays lighthearted.  We’re in Hollywood, after all, where nothing is ever real.  (Why don’t they make a movie about the barrista who never makes it?  Who moves back home and becomes the drama teacher at her old high school.  Never marries and drinks a pint of gin every night.)  And what’s really delightful is the chemistry and talent of the stars, and all the musical numbers, and the beauty and professionalism with which everything is done.  I was smiling the whole way through.  Even when things got sad.

This isn’t a musical like Cabaret, where all the musical numbers were performed in a café, so the whole thing was realistic in a way (I always thought it odd in the old fifties movies when somebody was walking down the street of their hometown and suddenly broke into song.  Though I do that pretty often myself.  No band is playing, however).  But it’s a movie about show business, and performers, so it never seems odd that they’re performing.  It seems natural.

And they do it so well.  That’s the important part, though they’re not really song and dance people, and have ordinary voices.  Somehow that’s part of the overall charm.  It’s not like Judy Garland singing in a movie.  It’s more like Lee Marvin breaking into song in Paint Your Wagon, though better than that.  If you see just one musical this year, or for the rest of your life for that matter, see this one.

[1] Do you too find it strange that a job that used to entail pouring coffee into a cup now has a special name, as if the person is a trained technician?