Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of the film LA LA LAND
NOTE: There is no way that this film can be reviewed without revealing spoilers.
Happy ending, happy ending
Give me a story with a happy ending
When boy meets girl and then
They never part again
— From Elvis Presley’s It Happened at the World’s Fair (Words and music by Ben Weisman – Sid Wayne)
Okay, so I must disclose that I was biased even before watching La La Land and was positive that this review would be a rave. One of the main reasons is that I love the old-style Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, Guys and Dolls, Brigadoon, and most of Elvis Presley’s musicals (yes, it’s true, Viva Las Vegas being among my favorites). I may commit critic sacrilege here, but I even loved Beach Blanket Bingo with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. La La Land got incredible raves from all of the major critics. It was touted as a throwback to the old silver screen musicals. Then I heard via cocktail chit-chat that it had a knock-down-drag-out opening number. I also heard Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are the new A-List triple threats (Gosling being a quadruple threat, because he not only acted, sang and danced, but did all of the keying on the piano for complicated jazz musical numbers.
The archetypal plot was simple and algorithmically sound; one that is as old as time itself. Two people on diverging paths in life meet and fall in love. How can that formula go wrong? Remember When Harry Met Sally? Here, Ryan Gosling plays a struggling jazz pianist who after a series of fateful encounters (or mis-encounters) hooks up with Emma Stone, a barista wannabe actress. He loves jazz – the real, historical, visceral, gut-wrenching jazz of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Thelonius Monk. He wants to own a club someday where he can showcase the real deal. She, on the other hand, wants fame and fortune as an actress – think icon status like Audrey Hepburn. Despite their different dreams, they support each other and ultimately fall in love.
And so I began watching it with a glorious grin on my face, already thinking of the superlatives that I would use in my review. The opening number was as predicted – simply incredible – killer camera work and choreography. Indeed, the single-take-steadicam/jib-arm opening number left the long Steadicam takes in Birdman in the dust. It also far surpassed the groundbreaking Steadicam opening (amazing for its time) of The Bonfire of the Vanities with Bruce Willis. Now I was thinking of superlative superlatives to use.
Okay, so in the dancing department, Gosling and Stone were nowhere near Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. And maybe their singing was not on par with Tony Bennet and Lady Gaga (or, for that matter, Meatloaf and Karla DeVito). And maybe it wasn’t a jukebox musical and didn’t have the great musical numbers of a Man of La Mancha or My Fair Lady. At least I was still smiling.
NOW HERE COMES THE SPOILER.
Just when you think it’s going to be an Elvis Presley happy-ending musical, it cuts to five years later. Not only aren’t they together anymore, but she’s married to a guy who looks like the boyfriend she dumped for Gosling and has a kid! Oh, and she also is a huge star. She and her husband are on their way to dinner when they hit bumper-to-bumper traffic. Just when I think this is some parallel universe and her husband is going to morph into Ryan Gosling, she tells him to turn off the highway and look for a restaurant on the backroads. Lo and behold, they stumble into this jazz club – you guessed it – owned by Ryan Gosling. They spot each other and it cuts to a meticulously assembled montage of what their life would have been like if they had stayed together. Maybe she wouldn’t have been as big an actress and he wouldn’t have his club, but at least they were together. So this was an alternate ending – I thought of the plays If/Then and Constellations and the films Sliding Doors and Savages. So it would be a happy ending after all.
It cuts back to her with her lame husband. They end up leaving after Gosling does a heart-wrenching homage on the keys to their past relationship. She leaves the club but not until after a parting exchange of knowing looks between them.
No happy ending. You know how frustrating that can be? You invest two hours in a film, are led down a garden path to what you think is a happily ever after ending and instead the hero turns into a Judas cow and gets slaughtered. I felt let down, betrayed. It was like the ending of Kevin Costner’s No Way Out – a beautifully plotted thriller ruined by a cheap twist during the last two minutes of the film. I turned to my wife and co-reviewer; both our jaws were dropped lower than that of Marley’s ghost’s.
How can this be? Winner of seven Golden Globes, eight Critics Choice Awards, and fourteen Oscar nominations! Could I be this wrong about a movie after thirty years in the biz? I went back and did some research. Maybe the real ending would be released on an exclusive Walmart or Target DVD, or a digital download from Amazon.
I read that Damien Chazelle, the film’s writer and director (who also did Whiplash) actually edited the ending first! He wanted it to end that way; meticulously planned it! How can you make sense of something like this? How can you justify it? I asked my wife and co-reviewer didn’t they smile at each other at the end. She said that Gosling looked sad.
That was it then. I was determined to write this review with the sharpest Ticonderoga#2 possible. I was going to cut it until it bled.
And then SAG’s promotional folder for the film came in the mail. And there, emblazoned on the cover in a frozen tableau, were the parting close-ups of Gosling and Stone smiling at each other. But it was more than that. Their eyes were beaming!
Like Michael Corleone being thunderstruck by Apollonia in The Godfather, it hit me: it was a happy ending. It had to end like this. There was no other way. They both loved their dreams more than each other. Their dreams were everything to them. In fact, the only thing they really had in common was that they both loved their dreams to the exclusion of everything else. They weren’t compatible in the least. She didn’t like jazz, and he wasn’t crazy about acting (he missed her one woman show choosing a photo shoot for his band over her). While opposites attract, there must be a core compatibility. I know this first-hand because my beautiful wife is my partner and soulmate in every way possible. Even when we write reviews (which we do so independent of each other) sometimes they are eerie doppelgangers down to same verbatim lines! (In fact, I can’t wait to read her review of La La Land). And finally, sometimes true love means letting go.
In conclusion, all I can say is that La La Land is a damn fine musical with a happy ending.
I’m not a proponent of spoilers; it’s a position I’ve taken in great part because my husband/co-reviewer is just the opposite. Not only does he search for them for himself – like a bandit, he’s been known to scour the Internet to find out what happens on The Walking Dead between episode cliffhangers or when they’re filming between seasons – but he also likes to dole them out to others like a hawker handing out flyers on a New York City street corner. (Fortunately I edit his reviews before we post, and I usually can trim at least the major giveaways.) While I’m not going back on my principles, this I will tell you about the whimsical La La Land written and directed by the very talented Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) – right after the film ended I wanted to “unsee” it. Yes, that’s what I said and that’s what I meant – I wanted to turn back the entire two hours eight minutes, wash out my eyes, and unsee it.
Now it’s not just my husband who does this. Right and left, in review after review, mainstream media outlets have given away pretty much everything about the record-breaking, captivating screen musical set in Los Angeles, a.k.a. “la la land” (a euphoric, dream-like state). You’d be hard-pressed to watch the film at this point without knowing what happens – and what doesn’t. But if you’re one of the few who haven’t read the spoilers, I won’t directly contribute. Leave it at that.
But now that I’ve had a little time to reflect, and heal from the experience, I’ll give you my two cents.
I do recognize that film-watching just like anything else is hugely subjective. Consider for example, that personally I’m a big fan of the rom-com genre; the get-your-happy-on-and-fall-in-love kinds of movies; and I did get a lot of happy on while watching La La Land. I laughed and I was entertained. I also was blown away by some of the incredible elements which were such beautiful shout-outs to classic films like Singin’ in the Rain, Casablanca, and even Rebel Without a Couse. Cinematically it was stunning, the acting was phenomenal, and the song-and-dance sequences were mesmerizing. It was charming, it was moving, it was thoroughly engaging…but for me, there just was that one thing missing. And it was the Hollywood ending I wanted and frankly, erroneously expected.
Mia, played by the utterly enchanting, radiant Emma Stone, is a barista-cum-frustrated-actress who works at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot. It’s synchronicity or maybe just plain kismet that she keeps running into struggling jazz pianist Sebastian (the brooding, gruff but altogether stunning Ryan Gosling). Their chemistry explodes on the screen from the opening moments in the one-shot music-and-dance sequence on a snarled LA freeway where they have their first “meeting” – it’s also foreshadowing to their ultimately solo journeys toward their futures and the realization of their individual dreams.
After a few more chance encounters, one of which follows an exchange that doesn’t go well with Bill (the always amazing J.K. Simmons), an intolerant, jazz-hating business owner, the two eventually date and both serve to support and inspire each other. They each have deep-rooted goals and aspirations; she wants to snag the role of a lifetime and become a serious actress; he’s a throwback to a bygone era and wants to own an intimate, classic-style jazz club. Their work in cafés and dingy bars are just a means to an end and love is the fuel toward that ultimate finish; but like gasoline in the gridlocked cars, it can run out; and it pretty much does. Their ambitions begin to collide (after many more spectacular song-and-dance numbers) and more layers are peeled away, most notably after Sebastian’s renewed relationship with old pal Keith (John Legend), who brings him into his jazz-pop crossover band; and when Mia stages a one-woman show. It becomes clearer what each wants and what they don’t.
I’m reminded that the entirety of our life experiences is what gets us to where we are at any particular moment. Everything we are is as a result of our past challenges, mistakes, and successes. Every step and misstep is important. We also are fortunate when we can balance what pioneering psychologist Alfred Adler noted as two of our key life tasks: love and occupation. For Mia and Sebastian, some things are meant to be and some aren’t. And it is an ending that both reflects that and is bittersweet.
I guess that’s where La La Land hit me like a sledgehammer. I recently spoke to a friend who told me she views my relationship with my husband as something of an ideal – or as my seventeen-year-old daughter loves to call it, #relationshipgoals. My husband and I not only have love, but we truly share our dreams, our work, and our passions. For us, “love” and “occupation” are not mutually exclusive. That same friend said she’d rather have love than the job of her dreams and the money that had come along with it – that those things ultimately hadn’t ever made her happy.
If nothing else, La La Land made me consider this. Love and dreams. Relationships and success. How we define these things and how subjective all of it is. Mia and Sebastian knew what they wanted and with some sacrifices, they achieved it. And with all that La La Land also has achieved thus far, for sure, young Chazelle did, too, working tirelessly to make this film (his dream) a reality. In sum, what these characters wanted may not have been what I want – but the final looks and knowing smiles they exchange in the last scene speak volumes.