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[Can be sung to “Audition (Fools Who Dream)”]

Many will scoff at
The goals that are not yet fulfilled.
Dreams without backers
Are subject to slackers
And thoughts that they’re too hard to build.

“No” to the doubts that press,
Weathered by hopefulness.
Those that will roll their eyes
Are in for a grand surprise.

A lone aspiration
Is ripe for frustration,
As all true successes know.
The chances we fumble
May help keep us humble
With more than one right way to go.

Hard is the road our dreams set,
Bumpy and lined with regret.
Still, where they lead we must go,
Only one outcome to know.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for a lone F-word, that’s it)

In the past, I’ve never given Oscar nominees the attention many bloggers do (I still haven’t seen half the nominees from 2015), but this year I had the unique pleasure of watching all but one of the Best Picture nominees in the theater, thanks to a great special with Regal. You can’t beat nine movies for $35! Thus, with the benefit of hindsight, I’ll be reviewing all of them in the days ahead, except for Moonlight, which I skipped only for it to end up winning, and I’ve already posted my thoughts on Arrival and Hidden Figures.

For my first post-Oscars review, I’ll cover the very last film I watched, which was actually during the Oscar ceremony. La La Land rose so quickly as a critical darling that many have pushed back or at least rolled their eyes at it, and reading so many such opinions, I had already given in to the consensus that it’s overrated. And yet…I loved it. I enjoyed all of the nominees this year, but rarely have I walked out of the theater as satisfied as I did with La La Land. Unfortunately, as soon as I came to the decision that it deserved Best Picture, that infamous mix-up gave the honor to Moonlight, for what could have been politically motivated reasons (I do still have yet to see it). While I was angry at the time and had to remind myself it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, I’m glad at least that La La Land won other awards it deserved and that I got to enjoy it on the big screen.

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I should state that I love musicals. While many were trashing Les Misérables, I was singing its praises, and La La Land hearkens back to the classic MGM musicals for which I recently found greater appreciation from the documentary That’s Entertainment! It’s true that La La Land isn’t a Broadway musical with constant showstoppers, though the very first scene should impress any music lover and I enjoyed the modern style of a concert headlined by John Legend. Even if it’s not a typical musical toward the end, Justin Hurwitz’s Oscar-winning music, the jazz in particular, is a constant presence and almost a character unto itself. Often, it’s without words, like the classic dance numbers of yesteryear.

The story itself centers on two aspiring creatives: Emma Stone’s Mia came to Hollywood to be an actress but endures a barista job on the studio lot, while Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian is obsessed with classic jazz, wishing to preserve its purity in his own nightclub one day. Their initially cold run-ins with each other melt into romance as they both share their unique passions and encourage each other toward their dreams. The plot may seem familiar, owing much to the likes of A Star Is Born and Roman Holiday, but it’s made vibrant by the charm and chemistry of the two leads and the nostalgia they wear on their sleeves. The screenplay is actually rather self-aware of its Hollywood setting (“They worship everything, and they value nothing”), and themes that apply to creative types abound: How far should one go in sacrificing what they love in service of present needs? How much rejection are we willing to take before throwing in the towel? Is a dying art worth saving if even one devout advocate remains? As Mia insists, “People love what other people are passionate about,” and there’s passion here to spare, even if you don’t think you’re a fan of jazz or musicals in general.

Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winning direction and camerawork are truly phenomenal as well. I’m a sucker for long, uninterrupted shots, and the fluidity of the camera helps one feel in the moment, whether it’s singers cavorting on a freeway or a disgruntled couple tap-dancing together on an L.A. overlook. Ryan Gosling and the ever-lovely Emma Stone may not be professional singers or dancers, but they show great commitment to their roles. Stone’s emotional scenes leave no doubt as to her Best Actress win, and the fact that Gosling learned how to play jazz piano for this film is astounding, considering how often and skillfully he tickles the ivories.

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As corny or clichéd as it sounds, La La Land is a true reminder of the magic of movies. Several scenes left me awed and enchanted, especially Mia’s one-take audition song, which deserved the Best Song Oscar much more than “City of Stars.” (I no longer blame La La Land for keeping Sing Street from a song nomination. That’s on “The Empty Chair.”) Yet it’s not all joy and magic; there’s struggle too and, like Arrival, that beautiful emotion called bittersweet. La La Land is honest enough to admit that life is rarely like a movie, but wouldn’t it be grand if it were?

In my opinion, 2016 bore one of the strongest batches of Oscar nominees in recent memory, and there was no single film that was clearly best. Some extolled the deep sci-fi of Arrival; others disliked it but preferred the power of Hacksaw Ridge; still others loved the sad realism of Manchester By the Sea or the emotion of Moonlight or Lion. In my case, I loved La La Land, and while I may be temporarily flying high only for my initial admiration to lapse eventually, I suspect it will continue to be a fond favorite of mine. As Mia’s audition song states, this film is for “the ones who dream,” and I’m one of them.

Best line: (Sebastian, explaining his lack of progress) “I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I’ll hit back.”


Rank: Top 100-Worthy


© 2017 S.G. Liput
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