If you miss Fred and Ginger, “La La Land” may disappoint. It’s director Damien Chazelle’s Valentine to the sort of movie musicals that had that duo dancing, and flying, down to Rio. Fred and Ginger made it all look effortless. Ryan Gosling (as Sebastian) and Emma Stone (as Mia) dance like people who have worked very hard to master the steps, the sort who enrolled in dance lessons taught by the Ginger Rogers character in “Top Hat.” When Gosling/Sebastian is dancing on the hill overlooking Hollywood and the move calls for him to make a standing leap from the ground to a bench, he lands it, but with the kind of effort that makes you wonder just how many takes it took. And Stone/Mia lets her twirly skirts do most of the work to give the impression of quick, graceful movement. They don’t even sing as well as Fred and Ginger.
So why is everyone flocking to this movie?
First, there’s the spectacular opening number. Cars are lined up along an L.A. freeway. Suddenly, a door opens, a girl gets out and begins to sing. Pretty soon every door is open and the highway is filled with singing, dancing Angelinos. There are mariachi bands and hip-hop dancers and folks leaping on the hoods of cars and a traffic jam, that grim signifier of 21st century urban life, is turned into a street party. Nobody’s leaving this party.
It’s in this opening scene that Mia and Sebastian meet (cute.) She misses the fun outside sitting inside her Prius going over the lines of a script. He misses the party sitting in his clunky 70’s convertible (no seatbelts) listening, then rewinding and listening again to a tape. (He’s a throwback, get it? Just like the movie.) When the traffic begins to move, Sebastian honks at the unmoving Mia, then roars past her on the left, shaking his head at her lack of freeway manners. She greets him with her middle finger. (I warned you they aren’t Fred and Ginger.)
Of course, these two, broke dreamers in the land of dreams, are bound to get together, and they do. Mia is an actor going to audition after unsuccessful audition while supporting herself as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner’s lot. Sebastian is a jazz composer and musician who longs to open a jazz club, but has to pay the bills playing the set list at a supper club around Christmastime. Too many chestnuts roasting on an open fire for this man whose tastes run more to Charlie Parker. When he breaks down and begins playing his own composition — a move that will get him fired — Mia happens to be walking by the club and steps in, enchanted by what she hears.
Of course, they fall in love. It’s hard to tell exactly with what, or whom, they fall in love: the moonlight, the music, an affinity for tap dancing in the streets, their shared admiration for “Rebel Without A Cause” and the Griffiths Observatory or simply a mutual longing for a Hollywood that no longer exists. But they dance and sing and kiss and then, in a dreary return to the dreary present, they move in together. And that, dear readers, is like the freeway after the music stops: ho-hum and none too interesting. A Mariachi band on a freeway during rush hour? Never seen that. On-screen live-ins? Is there any other way to express attraction in a movie?
You know this will end badly, with broken hearts like shattered windshields filling the screen. But, curiously, though this love affair does end badly, it comes to a close with a light touch, a deft touch and with grace and affection in a chaste dream of what might have been. “La La Land” begins and ends on two very different, but two very high notes. Gosling and Stone may not be the Fred and Ginger of the dance floor, but they may just be the Fred and Ginger of the bittersweet, and beautiful, farewell.
– Melissa Musick
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