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La La Land Movie Review

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La La Land Movie Review

Image courtesy of www.slashfilm.com

Image courtesy of www.slashfilm.com

Image courtesy of www.slashfilm.com

Image courtesy of www.slashfilm.com

Claire Smith, Staff Writer

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Warning: May Contain Spoilers

In the opening stanza, amid the signature Los Angeles traffic and brilliantly saturated dresses, one of the characters sings “But he was sweet and it was true / Still I knew what I had to do,” and herein lies the central tension of La La Land, one of ambition and love. Emma Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actress and barista, while Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz traditionalist who is determined to revitalize the forgotten art. Directed by thirty-two year old Harvard graduate Damien Chazelle (who also directed Whiplash), La La Land is a favorite for Best Picture at the upcoming Oscars. Having garnered a record seven awards at the Golden Globes and fourteen Oscar nominations, La La Land has captured the hearts of critics and audiences alike through its stunning cinematography, delightful musical numbers and poignant portrayal of falling in love (albeit debatedly the ending — more on that later).

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are by no means superb singers or dancers, nor do they need to be, and their acting is more potent than any catchy musical number. (Gosling did, however, learn piano for the film–cue swooning hearts everywhere). For that matter, their performances are all the more humanizing and make the unnatural aspects of a musical realistic. As director Damien Chazelle notes, “I wanted this to be a movie where utter reality could coexist very comfortably alongside utter fantasy.” Indeed, La La Land’s power exists in its dualities. The film is both a tribute to musicals past–think Singin’ in the Rain and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers–as well as an ode to modern day Los Angeles, replete with traffic, the artificiality of Hollywood’s elite and smart phones. The film captures both the whimsical and wholesome romance between Mia and Sebastian as well as the dream-crushing reality of pursuing one’s own ambition.

When describing the film to a peer, it’s hard to find anything with which to compare it–1920s Paris meets modern day LA? So while the film is romantic, it also is, to some extent, cynical in its acceptance of the trade-offs one makes for a career. Though some may find the ending of the film disappointing, La La Land is ultimately a triumphant film, a love letter to Hollywood and to all artists struggling to make ends meet. And the ending saves the film from dissolving into another romantic musical with a conventional and convenient closure.

Yet it’s equally as important to note that for many, the escapism of La La Land borders on the demeaning, particularly in a nation and world burdened by continued systemic racism and injustice. Lamenting “the film’s politics of nostalgia and whiteness,” Geoff Nelson notes in Paste Magazine,La La Land isn’t the escapism America needs right now, it’s a regressive effort at time travel with no sense of shame for America’s many historical sins. Chazelle engages in the most dangerous type of cultural production: to have an audience feel without thinking.” Black characters in La La Land occupy only supporting roles, like the couple Sebastian dances with on the dock in his signature number “City of Stars” or Seb’s bandmate who seemingly misunderstands and cheapens jazz. Indeed, the film invokes a romantic nostalgia – but a nostalgia for what time period, and for whom? And while Mia and Sebastian are ultimately successful in their respective professions–Mia as an A-list actress and Seb opening his own jazz club–the trials they overcome feel a little too bourgeoisie, success stories that may be attainable with white privilege.  It’s hard to compare the relative urgency and relevance of a film like Moonlight, one of La La Land’s competitors for Best Picture, which examines themes of identity, family and love through the lens of a boy as he progresses from childhood to adulthood in a poor, crime ridden Miami neighborhood. Yet La La Land has an advantage in that the Academy tends to favor movies about itself, given recent winners such as Birdman (2015) and The Artist (2011).

Ultimately, the film’s romanticized yet gritty portrayal of pursuing ambition imbues the audience with an urgency to follow one’s dreams, whether that be in a dark, crowded bar or the bright lights of the screen. In a divisive political climate, the musical bestows an invigorating hope and beauty through a modern lens. La La Land’s most pertinent message is that with an appreciation for beauty, capacity for persistence and specifically passion for the art of expression, one cannot have everything but rather accomplish anything.

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