(ED. NOTE: This review was originally published in September after we attended a screening at the Toronto Film Festival. We’re republishing it today, December 16, since the movie is scheduled to finally release in theaters nationwide this weekend.)
La La Land will be a lot of people’s favorite movie of all time. It’s going to be one of those movies listed under “favorite” in online dating profiles from people who want to be thought of as hopeless romantics, who maybe don’t quite get what the movie is actually about. La La Land is what they call a “humdinger” of a movie. It’s the movie that will save this wretched year of movies.
(There are obviously other great movies in 2016 – I’ve just seen a bunch of them this week – but now when people think of 2016, they will think of La La Land and smile. Then maybe cry a little. Then smile again.)
Speaking of humdingers, the Damien Chazelle film (which premiered Monday night to thunderous applause at the Toronto International Film Festival) opens up with one hell of a sequence. The camera pans over a fairly typical Los Angeles traffic jam, but then one by one the occupants of each car emerge into what becomes a glorious song and dance number, filmed on an actual Los Angeles highway. It’s a glorious spectacle. (I’m now going to write the word “glorious” again, adding an exclamation point for effect.) Glorious!
Right after this number, it’s on this highway we meet Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone). Their first meeting isn’t exactly what would be defined as a “meet-cute,” as Sebastian gives Mia the finger for not paying attention to the traffic ahead of her.
Mia is an aspiring actress who’s frustrated by her lack of success, working as a barista on a movie studio lot’s coffee shop. Sebastian is a talented, yet feckless jazz pianist who loses his job playing at a restaurant when he refuses to stick to the holiday-themed setlist provided by the restaurant’s manager, played by J.K. Simmons. (Simmons isn’t in La La Land much, but he makes the most of when he’s there.) Sebastian eventually resigns himself to playing Keytar for an ‘80s cover band. (Which, of course, gives La La Land an excuse to develop a scene surrounding a-Ha’s “Take on Me” and A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran.” If you can’t smile during this scene, you have no soul and have probably already died.)
As Mia and Sebastian keep running into each other at Los Angeles nightspots and parties, the first act of La La Land is all bright colors, singing and dancing as the two slowly fall in love. (My gosh, this movie… I’m writing this early on a Tuesday morning and am still on a natural high from seeing this 15 hours ago. I’m also a little hungover, but that’s a different story.)
There’s a moment in La La Land when you will think to yourself, Hm, there hasn’t been a song or dance in awhile. Things aren’t quite as pretty all the time. Mia doesn’t look at Sebastian quite the same way anymore. Sebastian stares at a stain on the ceiling in Mia’s room that we never noticed before. Basically, reality starts to set in: Both Mia and Sebastian become busy with their personal dreams – Mia starts a one-woman play; Sebastian joins a band fronted by a famous musician named Keith (John Legend) – which means promises aren’t kept anymore and feelings start to get hurt.
There’s no way I would spoil the ending of La La Land (I’m not sure I could even if I tried), but I will say the last few minutes leading up to the film’s ending had me swooning in my seat. As he proved with Whiplash, Damien Chazelle knows how to end a movie. It’s almost like he structured La La Land like a concert setlist, knowing at just what moment to play a certain track – and knowing to save the best for last to send the audience home on a high that, for me, is still going. (I honestly don’t know how long it will last. If I still feel like this in a few hours, I might have to call a doctor. I think they are free in Canada?)
La La Land is why people see movies in public. There’s even a scene in La La Land in which characters discuss how they’d rather just watch movies at home. (This is obviously a big middle finger by Chazelle to that line of thinking.) There have been a few trend pieces over the summer that “movies are dying.” And hey, maybe that’s true. In the world we live in, we really don’t know what movie distribution will look like in ten years. Things are changing quickly.
But, with La La Land, movies aren’t dead yet. With La La Land, movies have just announced that they are very much alive and well and won’t be going anywhere, at least on this day. Not today. Not when something like La La Land exists in the world.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.