Ga Ga for La La Land
I tend to discover things in my own time. When it comes to high-profile dramas or "awards movies," for lack of a better term, I will put these films on the back-burner for an indefinite length of time. Sometimes I shy away from them for years, knowing that I need to see them, but not necessarily wanting to see them. I'm not quite sure why this is, but I suspect it has something to do with the cinematic establishment and my lack of patience for a particular type of film that gets rewarded at the Oscars each year. I also find that almost all movies play completely differently when separated from the hype machine, and I prefer to come to a movie cold and without expectation, which is next to impossible in our current climate of endless internet debate. Such is the case with La La Land, a movie that all my movie friends saw and appreciated, but that I avoided for the reasons I've just mentioned. Also, because I'm stubborn.
It turns out that I really did myself a disservice by waiting on La La Land, because I have completely fallen in love with this movie about two people who completely fall in love. Then again, maybe I've connected to it so deeply because I came to it blindly. The film tells the story of two characters, played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, as they begin a romance in the City of Angels. It's a musical, inspired by the likes of Busby Berkeley and classics like Singin' in the Rain, while also remaining grounded in the here and now of modern Los Angeles, which is the third lead. As a big fan of classic cinema, I often find myself declaring to anyone willing to listen that Hollywood seems have lost the ability to tell a story with the same competence and grace that it has exhibited for over a century. What I mean by this is that we have entered a movie-making landscape in which everything seems tailor made for audiences with attention deficit disorder. Films are edited so that the camera cuts every few seconds, cinematography seems to have lost the eye for beauty in our world, and even film scores rarely present symphonic themes anymore in favor of quick, forgettable motifs. But La La Land proves me wrong. It shows us that we can have modern movies that still exhibit stunning cinematography, memorable musical themes, long, lingering shots filled with humanity, and a scope that feels grand without being about a superhero. It proves that movies can still capture that ethereal sense of timelessness found in so many films from the golden age of Hollywood.
La La Land is the tale of two people and their realities, but also of the myth. The director of the movie, Damien Chazelle, is clearly in love with the myth of Hollywood. The magic age that never actually was, Los Angeles as a haven, a muse, a paradise of purple sunsets and cinematic grandeur. In the commentary for the film, he mentions that Los Angeles is a city filled with a history that the people who live there are aware of, but don't care about at all. He equates it to modern Rome, filled with the artifacts of a once-mighty civilization, but uninteresting to the people who live there and see it every day. It's this absolute love of Los Angeles, of Hollywood, and the histories of those places, which seems to ooze out of every second of La La Land.
This is a little embarrassing to admit, but when I first hit play on this movie, I turned to my wife and said "Emma Stone is on Hollywood's A-list, but I don't understand why." I have always liked Emma Stone, from the first time I saw her in Superbad and all through the two Amazing Spider-Man movies where she played Gwen Stacy. But in relation to performers from previous generations, I perceived that something was lacking. Whatever was missing to me wasn't present in Birdman (another high profile Emma Stone performance), either. However, about 15 minutes into La La Land, I looked at my wife and said "I was wrong. Emma Stone is amazing." Just minutes into her first few scenes, I knew I was watching a performance that was special. Emma Stone won and Oscar for her work in this movie, and I'm so glad she did. A single movie can forever endear a performer to us, and this movie has cemented Emma Stone as one of the greats.