La La Land.

My top 100 prospects ranking is rolling out this week, with prospects #40 to #21 in today’s post. Over at Paste, I reviewed the new edition of Citadels, a classic game from 2000 that plays 2-8, and comfortably plays five-plus – I’d say it’s best with at least four.

Imagine if Once were set in L.A., opened with a classic musical-film song and dance number, and starred two ridiculously beautiful people wearing nice clothes and singing happier songs?

Once didn’t get the love it deserved from the Oscars, although it later became a cult hit and a Tony Award-winning musical. La La Land is a lot more ambitious and bigger-budget than Once was, and it’s going to win a lot more Academy Awards, but at their hearts are quite similar stories about love affairs that just can’t last, set to music.

Of course, that’s a bit glib – La La Land is more than just that. It’s part homage to the bygone era of the big Hollywood musical. It’s a feast for the eyes, with vivid colors in the background and on Emma Stone. It’s a little bit parody, and then it folds a little back in on itself and plays along with its own gag. It’s also a really good time, which makes it a rarity among the Best Picture nominees this year. La La Land is an outright pleasure to watch, even with the half-and-half ending, and with so many movies draped in grief, regret, sorrow, and isolation this year, it stands out even more.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play Mia and Seb, two beautiful people struggling in their careers in LA – she an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop, he a jazz pianist playing Christmas music in a nightclub and then, in a sight gag that Stone turns into something much more, in a bad ’80s cover band. They meet more than once and don’t hit it off right away, but eventually the movie keeps pushing them together until there’s a spark, along with a song about how there’s no spark between them. Eventually, he gets a medium break, playing in a jazz-pop band led by his old frenemy Keith (played by John Legend), which forms the first wedge between the star-crossed lovers, although they manage to careen back and forth until the movie’s epilogue, five years later, where we see that, even in the movies, sometimes you just can’t have everything after all.

This is a musical, but not an old-time musical. If you just saw the opening scene, a huge ensemble dance number set in a traffic jam on a highway on-ramp, you’d expect something like the classics, where people just spontaneously start dancing while singing their dialogue. Instead, this is a regular movie with a handful of songs, and it isn’t until the end, when Emma Stone sings for her Oscar with “The Audition Song” (earning the movie one of its two Best Song nominations) near the very end, that we get another flashback to the halcyon days of Hollywood. Did critics who’ve said of La La Land that “they don’t make movies like this any more!” realize that Hollywood never made movies like this in the past?

Stone really owns this film in just about every way. Her character is better-developed, more three-dimensional, and shows real growth over the film. When Mia and Seb have their first quarrel as lovers, Mia holds her own in the argument, and Stone manages to portray inner turmoil on a face that’s outwardly composed until Seb finally insults her enough for her to leave. That’s Stone’s greatest achievement in the movie – her character is often put in situations where she’s turning from one emotion to another in a flash, and she can do this without making you aware that this is just someone acting.

The movie also uses her as a blank canvas of sorts, running her through an array of dresses in solid, vibrant colors that seemed to underscore the fact that, hey, we’re in California, where everything is sunny and bright and colorful all the time. It doesn’t hurt that she can get away with wearing all of those colors, or that her eyes seemed to be green in one scene and blue in another, but it ensures that your eyes are on her in nearly every scene.

Gosling, meanwhile, can turn on the charm when his character permits, but Seb is prone to this sort of insular, sulking behavior that I thought was as offputting as his strange amalgam of New York and Philly accents. And neither of these two is winning any awards for dancing, although, as always, we must give more credit to the woman for dancing backward and in heels.

Some of the L.A. jokes were a little too on the nose – the Prius gag, the gluten-free line – and the movie is funnier when it draws humor from situations rather than punchlines. When Seb is trying to explain jazz to Mia, and she answers with, “What about Kenny G?” it’s his reaction that drives the entire scene. He is totally beyond exasperated, like he wants to claw the skin off his face, yet is so passionate about the subject and obviously smitten with her that he tries to talk her down off the smooth-jazz ledge. It’s probably my favorite Gosling scene in the movie, especially since Seb’s ego returns to the center of his character towards the end of the film.

The movie ends with a dream sequence that shows an alternate reality five years on, what might have happened if things went … well, the other way, and I think here director and writer Damien Chazelle did two things: paid homage to classic musicals in more explicit fashion, and reminded the Academy just one more time to vote for him. I caught direct allusions to An American in Paris and Royal Wedding, and Funny Face, but I’m no expert on the genre and assume I missed many more. In that sense, it was the most engrossing part of the movie – you’re looking at the flip side of the movie’s internal reality, and also watching the two of them move through a rolling reference to Hollywood history.

I’ve seen four of the Best Picture nominees and hope to see as many as eight – I have zero interest in a Mel Gibson movie, and even less in that particular one – although I might only get Lion after the awards ceremony. Of the four I’ve seen, I think La La Land would get my vote. It just does more, and does more well, than Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea, both great movies but less ambitious than this one. I think any would be a worthy winner, but I rank things, and I currently have La La Land at #1.


  1. Respectfully disagree. There are few films as narratively ambitious as Moonlight, especially when it comes to structure. And it seems to me that while Chazelle hedges his bets, essentially creating an alternative ending that undercut the strength of the narrative, Jenkins has faith enough in his film to end on a wonderfully ambigious note. Moreover, leaning on previous iconic films to do some of the work in yours strikes me as a bit of a cheat (one of the reasons I’m always a little suspicious of Tarantino–how much of the work in his films is being done by specific reiterations of other peoples creativity). Finally, it may be apples and oranges but despite La La Land’s more overtly showy visuals, I really think Moonlight is far more subtly ambitious.
    Still, it’s good to have a year where it’s even worth the effort to make these arguments.

    PS–Saw Hacksaw Ridge and for me it was just a retconned version of all those 60’s and 70’s WWII movies that inevitably starred Ben Gazzara or James Coburn. Loud, bombastic more than a touch jingoistic– and the characters were uniformly paper thin. Found the noms for it kind of baffling.

  2. The big difference between Once and La La Land is that you don’t necessarily have to like the music in La La Land to enjoy the film. With Once, your enjoyment of the film is pretty much dependent on your enjoyment of the music in it. That’s why I’ve always felt that Once was meh.

    While you mention just how bleak some of the Best Picture nominees are, and they are (imagine if Silence or Nocturnal Animals or The Founder had garnered nominations), I was also fairly impressed that La La Land chose to go the not-so-typical-Hollywood route with its ending. I always just had a sense that while these two people may have loved each other, there would always be something to drive them apart. I always assumed it would be Seb’s inflexibility regarding his feelings on music, and was kind of relieved that it wasn’t that simple.

    I’ve seen all 9 Best Picture nominees, and I’d rank this one 4th, behind Manchester by the Sea, Arrival and Moonlight, in that order. But I also feel that there is virtually no way of this film not winning Best Picture. Hollywood loves to reward itself, as we all know, and at least this one is much more deserving of winning than, say, Chicago.

  3. Loved La La Land too, but Manchester by the Sea was as real and devestating a film as I’ve seen in years. Have not yet seen Moonlight, and like you I have no interest whatsoever in anything Gibson, but I’d offer that Arrival belongs in the conversation for sure. Beautiful, haunting, literate…

  4. Great review, Keith. Once is one of my all time favorite movies and La La Land was my favorite movie of the year (FTR, I’ve seen 7 of the 9 nominees for best picture) I think what made it stand out for so many people is just what you said – there were so many bummer films this year, and even though it didn’t have a typical happy ending, it still left you with a smile on your face and humming a song on your way out of the theater.

  5. Totally agree with Tim McEown. I liked several things about La La Land – Emma Stone is warm and genuinely touching, a couple of the songs are catchy, and the ending is quite moving. But I thought the characters were thin and the script often confused. The whole thing struck me as a second-rate Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Moonlight is, imo, a much more surefooted and emotionally ambitious film.