When it comes to the best cinema, the legs never lie. If you find me in a theater when a movie has left me hopelessly engrossed, you’ll find my right leg trembling with such frightening power that the entire row quakes with my jitters. I watched La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s third and most electrifying film, with my mother at the Bluffton Cinemark, and when I glanced over at her halfway through the show, I saw that even she had been stunned into total leg-bounce.
It was at this point that I struggled to withhold my tears, not from joy, but from the heartache to come — I suspected it would take years for another movie to touch me as fully and irreversibly as this one did, and in a rare instance of taste, I was pretty sure my mother agreed.
Too many of the wrong people will convince you that Los Angeles is, to steal from Hunter Thompson, “…a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.” But this is not what director Damien Chazelle sees, nor is it what he plans to show us. In a spellbinding opening scene of a traffic jam that thrills from the moment the screen unfolds into the word “Cinemascope”, he paints a stone-clad dreamscape where every soul marooned on the 405 freeway squints through the glass to see life in widescreen and three-strip color, as if to live any other way would be a cynic’s errand.
Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are two such people on just such a freeway, where they meet during a brief bumper-to-bumper clash. Mia is an aspiring actress balancing her job at a coffee shop in a studio back lot with occasional auditions and call-backs, all of which end in shame and dismissal. I’ve heard friends complain that Emma Stone isn’t graceful enough for such a dance-heavy role. Perhaps that’s the point — this is a woman who isn’t so perfect that we don’t believe her failures and missteps.
Sebastian is a jazz pianist whose life vision is to open up a jazz club and reignite the flame of a dying genre. So devoted is he that he drives out of his way to drink his morning coffee across from a Tapas bar cum Samba spot for no apparent purpose beyond keeping it the object of his envy. Gosling seems like a strange choice for such an eccentric character until you see his eyes light up when his fingers hit the piano. This man is not defined by his quirkiness but by his fire. Gosling delivers fire as quietly and effectively as any living actor.
After their meet-cute, Mia stumbles upon Sebastian playing freeform at a club right as he’s about to be fired for not sticking to Christmas jingles. She’s paralyzed by his skill, but he storms out just as she’s about to pay him his due. They run into each other days later at an 80’s themed pool party at which Sebastian is keyboarding, and they realize that they can’t help being drawn to each other. In their earnestness and reach, they are birds of a feather, and they quickly realize that though they butt heads, their bloody trails of struggle were joining seemingly beyond their control to create a brand new one, one meant to be traveled together and in love. Naturally, life doesn’t always unravel so cleanly, but as the film ultimately argues, that doesn’t mean you can’t still get what you’re chasing.
I can’t help but have a love-hate relationship with Damien Chazelle. I’m almost shamefully jealous of him, so gifted a filmmaker that I wish he’d ration just a bit of that talent for those of us a little less God-sent.
But his movies speak to audiences with such joy and immediacy that he never appears to be striking a self-regarding pose; in his every camera sweep, montage, and faultlessly-blueprinted musical number, he feels to be reaching out of the screen and inviting us to jive alongside him on his grandest stage, as if thanking us for the role we played in building it.
The movie is a bit long at 128 minutes, but there is so much on display that glows with nostalgic fervor that I challenge even the most cantankerous viewer to care. To view it so clinically would violate the very principles that make it such an effortlessly endearing experience. If La La Land has a message, it’s that one should never be so clouded as to stop believing that anything is possible, not because it ought to be or even that we expect it to be, but rather because for life to be worthy of our endurance, it must be.
Happy New Year, dear readers, and as long as you’ll be there holding tight to your dreams, I’ll see you at the movies.
Spencer Moleda is a freelance writer and film critic residing in Los Angeles, California. You can reach him at: [email protected]
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