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Review

Why Every Musician Should Watch “La La Land”

With a deeper narrative than it’s often given credit for, this film reminds us of the beauty (and sacrifices) at every stage of the path to success.

By Richie Angel

“Requesting ‘I Ran’ from a serious musician is just—it’s too far.”
“Did you just say, ‘A serious musician’?”

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If award season accolades are any indication, La La Land requires no introduction. The 2016 musical earned a record-breaking seven Golden Globes, and it tied for the most Academy Award nominations in history with fourteen. Damien Chazelle broke an 86-year-old record to become the Oscars’ youngest Best Director, and the movie’s soundtrack earned two Grammys. Beyond the critical reception, La La Land grossed almost half a billion dollars, bridging the common disconnect between the Academy and the audience.

Set in Los Angeles, where everyone is desperate for a connection and a callback, La La Land tracks aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling). Mia and Seb begin dating, initially entranced by the other’s devotion to their dreams. But as repeated failures take their toll and opportunities pull them in opposite directions, Mia and Seb struggle to stay together while pursuing their goals.

Ryan Gosling with Damien Chazelle. Photo by Dale Robinette.
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The film begins by demanding—and earning—your attention with a 4-minute musical number in a traffic jam. Composer Justin Hurwitz makes his mark, but the stars of the sequence are choreographer Mandy Moore (but not that Mandy Moore) and Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren. Moore juggles thirty performers, and Sandgren captures the scene in an apparent one-shot (there are two cuts hidden in swish pans), heralding in the motion picture with pure Hollywood majesty. Soon afterward, Chazelle and crew set a new bar with a 5-minute one-shot sequence on a hilltop at sunset – only two performers but zero hidden cuts. The movie is a technical masterpiece.

Thematically, these two early scenes embody the film’s rhythmic balance between the Hollywood dream and the dreamers. The opening number is for the dreamers: “Could be brave or just insane; we’ll have to see.” The hilltop dance begins with a jazzy introduction reminiscent of an overture from a Golden Age classic, after which Gosling’s Seb swings around a lamppost like Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, completing the illusion. Tying the two together, the film presents dreamers who believe that they, above all others, will get their break: “City of stars, are you shining just for me?”

Emma Stone in La La Land.
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The film is also a call for soul searching among the dreamers. What will you do to make it in La La Land? What, even whom, will you sacrifice? There are no easy answers, but the movie’s controversial culmination of its character arcs only heightens the powerful artistic applicability. The struggle feels authentic. When Seb is disgusted by the request to play two chords over and over again, or he’s told that the only way to save traditional jazz is to infuse it into modern genres, there’s nothing foreign or false about his reluctance to compromise. And when Mia sings, “Here’s to the fools who dream,” her passion encourages dreamers to keep trying for one more day.

With a deeper narrative than it’s often given credit for, La La Land reminds us of the beauty (and sacrifices) at every stage of the path to success. And that’s why every musician should watch La La Land.

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