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Courtesy of Summit Entertainment

January 8, 2017

Damien Chazelle’s Land of Palm Trees, Streetlights and Song

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If I’m honest with you, I don’t quite know how to write about this movie. It’s a musical and it’s awesome so I’m completely out of my element. I’m far more comfortable ripping into mediocre action flicks at present but if Ryan Gosling agreed to sing on camera I’ll give this a whirl.

La La Land is a musical-comedy-romance-drama shindig directed by Damien Chazelle, who brought us Whiplash in late 2014. As awesome as Whiplash was I don’t feel bad saying his new work is a step up. La La Land earned itself a 2016-leading seven Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay, Score and Song. And though I’ve yet to see 20th Century Women I think Chazelle and gang have a strong chance of taking home a lot of hardware from the 89th Academy Awards.

The film is basically the story of the relationship between Sebastian, a struggling jazz pianist played by Ryan Gosling, and Mia, a struggling actress played by Emma Stone. The two meet repeatedly in their daily Hollywood lives and a whole bunch of music and love ensues. In large part, this film succeeds because of the outstanding chemistry between Gosling and Stone. Every part of their relationship is totally believable and that goes a long way to make the audience feel for the characters.

Stone is especially fantastic in this film. From her audition scenes to flexing her singing and dancing muscles, every part of her performance is dazzling. Gosling is good too but to a lesser extent, though his piano playing, which he did himself, was surprisingly good. Neither of the leads likely got their parts because of their singing ability, but I thought Stone held her own.

One of the largest complaints I’ve heard about this film is that Ryan Gosling can’t sing and it bothers me that people perceive this as an issue. I agree Gosling might have some trouble stretching his vocal chords but he’s playing a pianist. His character doesn’t really need to sing well in the context of the film. If anything Gosling’s lack of singing starpower made his character more relatable! I guess he needed to leave a little hope for all the boyfriends in the theater.

Another complaint I’ve heard frequently is that La La Land gets caught up in stirring up musical nostalgia but I feel this is just another desperate attempt to find a problem with this movie.

In the film, Mia puts on a one-woman show and begins to doubt herself as opening night approaches. She wonders if it would be too nostalgic and worries whether or not people would like it. Sebastian’s response to this worrying was simple: “fuck ‘em.”

Sebastian sees right through her trepidations; he knows that whether or not the masses would like her show was beside the point. Mia is following her dreams and doing good work and that’s all Sebastian, and I, thought should matter.

It’s hard not to think that Sebastian’s thinking here is indicative of Chazelle’s attitude towards the film as a whole. It didn’t seem like the director was overly worried about lighting up the box office or setting up sequels with this film. He simply made a great movie.

I’d say this movie isn’t for everyone but I think more appropriate phrasing would be “to everyone.” La La Land feels like a brilliant love letter to the musicals of the ’50s and ’60s and all those who love them so dearly.

I say so what if it’s nostalgic? This movie just works at the most basic level. I felt real emotion because of La La Land. I was happy and sad, pleased and frustrated — it was marvelous.

Nicholas Smith is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nks53@cornell.edu

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