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Few films have swept up audiences in such frenzy as the phenomenon that is La La Land, a singular piece of extraordinary filmmaking that resonated with critics and ticket-buyers in ways not many were able to clearly understand or express, simply telling those who hadn’t seen, don’t ask why, just do it. While it embraces old-time, overdone romantic themes, and calls back to a time long abandoned (though 2010’s The Artist perhaps hinted of its coming), its breath-taking flare and unabashed love for what it wants to be made it a surprisingly-unique and often moving experience that earned the highest acclaim from all corners. And if you’ve grown tired of all the gushing since its release, well, be ready for exhaustion ’cause there’s plenty more gush to come.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who blew up after his astonishing Whiplash (2014) floored critics and theater-goers, La La Land follows the intertwining tale of two lost souls in the titularly-named Los Angeles, both trying to make ends meet by committing themselves to an artistic craft that has yet to offer them any hope of a ‘dream come true.’ Through imaginative and highly-memorable musical numbers, mixed with earnest personal moments, the two meet, fall in love, and follow paths that swivel and twist to futures uncertain. It’s a magical and genuinely touching story that deserves multiple viewings. And like any movie, it has one great moment.
It starts with the middle finger. Well, at least it does the first time Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) see each other. They are stuck on an LA freeway and when he makes an aggressive lane change using his blaring horn, she gives it back with an ‘up yours’ digit straight to the sky. Classic.
What this really marks though is where two stories from opposite sides divulge, the starting point of sort where a meeting and collision will soon mark their first ‘real’ meeting. Without offering too many details, for those few who have yet to actually see the movie, she is a young actress working in a coffee shop on a movie studio lot, reading for bit parts, waiting for her break, and not having a good time of it. He is a jazz fan, though ‘fan’ is hardly the word as he lives and breathes it in his every waking moment. He’s crushed by the decline of the art and the evaporation of its presence in the city.
As the film briefly highlights their similar day of rejection and disheartening experience with life in L.A., the evening finds her without a car, it towed away, and she walking solemnly home while he plays cheesy Christmas standards in a lounge-restaurant for an owner (J. K. Simmons) who has no interest in free jazz and demands Sebastian stick to the setlist or else. It’s jolly holiday tunes or it’s the front door.
Disillusioned with it all, Mia passes by the restaurant at the very moment Sebastian has reached his melting point with tapping out cringe-inducing carols on the keys and slips into a soft, passionate piece of piano jazz instead, one that he fully falls into (called ‘Mia and Sebastian’s Theme’ on the official soundtrack). Lulled by the dulcet tones, Mia wafts into the hall and stands mesmerized by the achingly poetic music coming from the piano at the center of the room, a single bit of light shining upon her.
When the song is over though, Sebastian learns the hard way that the setlist is set and the owner, furious for the infraction, cuts him loose without a thought, even though it is the holiday season. This is precisely the moment when Mia decides to make a gesture to compliment on his playing and as the two approach, she smiles and speaks, and we feel the coming magic as he strides toward her, all handsome and gruff and um … he, well, bumps her shoulder and bursts out of the restaurant, leaving her slack-jawed and shuddered. End scene. Wait. That’s not how movies work. Indeed. Welcome to La La Land.
The moment is actually, as hinted above, played out in two perspectives up until the song ends, and what Chazelle does magnificently, is set up a trope-ish audience expectation, only to completely reverse it, pulling the rug wholesale right out from under us. While the lead up to it all is wonderfully played out, and the transition from Mia’s story to Sebastian’s via a piano chord and car horn is something pretty special, let’s stick to the restaurant and the end of the set up.
We’ve already learned that Sebastian is a fanatic, a man drowning in his own obsession for the music, his dream to own, operate, and play in a jazz club so good it will transform the art itself. He won’t date, he can barely eat, has debts and is nearing eviction, but he is convinced there is hope, so he plays when he can, where he can, even if it goes against everything he stands for. And so it is at the lounge where he thinks there is opportunity to sneak some jazz into the night, something that he’s obviously tried before and paid a price, but is willing to do again, thinking a slap on the hand is worth educating diners.
We see him sardonically going through the motions as it were, tickling the keys with lively but lifeless Christmas music as few pay him any attention, a dollar here a dollar there dropped into the large glass tip bowl on the piano. Done with it all, midway through a springy rendition of ‘Deck the Halls,’ Sebastian lets his hands loosen and the camera swings softly behind him, his back serving as a scene swipe as it were, signaling a shift as the music noticeably changes, and he begins the aforementioned song.
Everything changes in fact as the house lights go down and a single spot from above (seen earlier on Mia) beams over Sebastian as he becomes entranced by his own music, pouring all he has into a tune that is as pure and as true as anything he’s played. But of course when it’s done and he stands expecting applause, the house is dead silent. Even the proverbial crickets are nowhere to be heard. This is the state of jazz in LA.
It is here though that, while standing with no praise, he turns and sees Mia in the door, a woman so obviously succumbed to his talent and presence she can barely breath, and we, now for the second time as when we first saw her at the lounge, expect, well … this is it. Boom. Sparks. Love. Sex. Everything. All systems go, romance blast off. Like Elton John once sang, I’ve Seen That Movie, Too.
And yet, no. At least not yet. Sebastian storming away, thumping Mia as he heads for the exit, completely disorients us, as it does Mia. I mean, how do you ignore a pretty girl coming straight to you? How do you NOT see the want in her eyes? How do you diss Emma Stone? Why would you diss Emma Stone? That we are shaken from that expectation is simply one of many moments in La La Land that leads viewers down a primrose path where we all feel comfortable, only to veer into something unlike we’ve seen before. It keeps us constantly on our toes for the rest of the film.
And then we come to the pay off, much later in the movie, long after this moment in a cheesy diner lounge, well into the relationship of Mia and Sebastian, after so much as happened between them and their lives are a tangle of unsurpassed love and damage that we have already forgotten where it began. Dreams have come true at great cost of course and while I won’t spoil how or why, in a moment of almost sublime emotional release, we return to that lounge and see things as they might have been, and it is here where La La Land, like a scene in a planetarium earlier, lifts itself again into the night sky of imagination and passion for just being alive and living fully whatever path you take.
La La Land is a remarkable journey, a treasure trove of visuals and music that seem untapped even after several viewings, a movie that needs to be studied for its creativity and innovation. While it is packed with scene after scene of captivating and often seizing moments of emotion, a scene in a restaurant where two lovers meet is one to remember. It’s a great cinematic moment.