La La Land: An Unapologetic Love Letter

Dominic Curran goes to bat for the polarizing musical.

La La Land Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land.

By Dominic Curran

Despite what every East Coaster will tell you, Los Angeles is a beautiful city. Yes, the traffic is terrible, and it’s expensive, and there are more Starbucks than there are people, and people are fake, and yes, again, the traffic is really terrible. But in the right place on the 405 you can look up past the Prius idling in front of you, through the smog, and between a hotel and a block of condos, you will see a very famous sign. It reads HOLLYWOOD. Yes, earlier, it did say HOLLYWEED, but even earlier than that, it once read HOLLYWOODLAND.

And if you’ve been to the movies to see Damien Chazelle’s most recent masterpiece, you will know that even though the -land has been missing for 60-something years, Hollywoodland is very much alive and well.

OK, since I’m calling La La Land a masterpiece, yes the elephant in the room is that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone aren’t professional singers. Their vocal performance has been widely criticized and in all honesty, they aren’t the best I have ever heard. But focusing too much on vocal performance is a dangerous path to take. Before you know it, we’ll end up dubbing every movie musical or casting only singers at the expense of good acting. Having an actor who can’t sing can ruin a film (see: Russell Crowe, Les Mis), but unless you want Idina Menzel dubbed over every vocal performance in every film from now on, cut them a little slack.

I, for one, thought that both actors captured the spirit of the film in their performances. I can’t listen to Emma Stone’s performance in “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” without getting a little misty-eyed. She gives it her all. And, OK, if Ryan Gosling wasn’t Ryan Gosling they might have switched him out, even with his chemistry with Stone and the fact that he learned how to play the piano for the film (and he kills it). But some people aren’t impressed. I’ve heard a lot of, I can sing better than Ryan Gosling, or Yeah he learned to play band-level concert piano for the film, but I can play better than him. Maybe you can. Maybe some other actor could. I’ve made a little chart to see if you/they should have gotten the role over Ryan.

Ryan Gosling Chart

Once you get past the singing, the score is immaculate. From the opening ensemble song-and-dance number Another Day of Sun, a six-minute, one-take piece with nearly 200 actors (shot in traffic where the 110 meets the 105); to Ryan Gosling’s solo piano number “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme”; the lead couple’s flirtatious and sarcastic tap dancing homage to the age of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ “A Lovely Night”; the one you’ve heard even if you haven’t seen the film, “City of Stars”; the cameo from John Legend—Justin Hurwitz, Chazelle’s Harvard friend (who also scored 2015’s critically acclaimed Whiplash), has created something award-worthy if you were only to listen to it. It’s as much a film about music—the music of classic Hollywood, jazz, of telling a story through great music—as it is a film about Hollywood.

And that is just if you listen to it (I can’t recommend the soundtrack enough). But the movie is filmed just as beautifully. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, Joy) picks out every color with SoCal sunshine; every outfit could be fresh from James Dean or Elizabeth Taylor’s wardrobe; every shot frames one more glimpse of the city skyline. Easily the most visually breathtaking sequence in the film, and, in my opinion, of this year’s entire crop of movies, comes at the end. Accompanied by “Epilogue,” a finale made up of every song from the film, and the most exquisite homage to everything that made classic Hollywood so special, these eight minutes alone are worth the ticket price, if only because there is nothing in the world that could distract me from what was pure cinema magic.

I think that this is the real beauty of La La Land. It’s shot beautifully, it has an amazing soundtrack, a perfect cast. The narrative, while nothing groundbreaking, is a classic romance—two lovers lost in a big city, trying to make it big and make it work at the same time. It’s full of nostalgia for the golden age of Hollywood, and it pulls it off with a celebration of the city that gave it its name. But Chazelle’s greatest achievement is pulling an audience in to enjoy a movie that pays tribute to great movies before it, and showing them that in times like these, even if things don’t work out the way we want them to, everything will be alright.

La La Land has polarized viewers and even irked some critics in its quest for the gold. Now that you’ve heard the defense, check out Taylor Smith’s critique of the Oscar frontrunner.