La La Land is the Greatest Movie of All Time! (or at least my favorite)
I have seen a great many movies. If that sounds a bit like I’m bragging… that’s because I am. But also it’s context. Before I saw La La Land, I had several answers for the “best movie” and “favorite movie” questions. My answer depended on who was asking. If someone I didn’t want to talk to asked, I would just say The Godfather; it is universally beloved and doesn’t lend itself to much conversation. If a film nerd inquired, I would say something pretentious like Breathless or The Passion of Joan of Arc. But if I wanted to answer the question truly, I would typically say Seven Samurai. Never before now have I had a number one movie, just a very closely clustered top 10 or 15 that I would cycle through. I have seen all but 13 movies on AFI’s 100 best films list and all but three of the BFI Sight & Sound list. Movies have evoked a wide range of feeling in me. From City Lights, which left me joyful, to Return of the King, which made me want to ride into battle on the back of a horse, to A Clockwork Orange, which made me want to shower.
No film among the arguably too many movies that I’ve seen has ever had the same impact on me as did La La Land. I just sat in my room in silence for another 128 minutes and thought about every single moment of Damien Chazelle’s newest masterpiece. Chazelle has already proven himself to be something special with Whiplash. To follow that up with La La Land and the screenplay for 10 Cloverfield Lane makes or one hell of a way to start a career. Not just Chazelle but the entire production team from top to bottom is an-all-star cast. Linus Sandgreen is one of the best working cinematographers for movies about regular people; just come off of his time on Joy, The Hundred-Foot Journey, and American Hustle —three movies that are a far stretch from perfect but ones in which the camera is used to dazzling effect.
La La Land is edited by Tom Cross, also a Joy alumnus, though it is Whiplash and the 2014 Any Day Now that are among the stars in his firmament. And of course Chazelle brought back Justin Hurwitz as composer for La La Land because if it ain’t broke. And that’s just the brilliance behind the camera. As talented as Chazelle and his team are, even their brilliance pales compared to the performances of La La Land’s two stars. Truth be told this is a star-studded cast: J.K. Simmons, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Finn Wittrock. Still none matter at all in the huge shadow cast by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. As much as I like Andrew Garfield and whichever Eva it is that Ryan Gosling is married to, I think it’s time for Stone and Gosling to leave them. This is three movies in a row where their chemistry is unrivaled; these two put even Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to shame.
Damien Chazelle loves to tell stories about passion. There are various interpretations of Whiplash. It can be viewed as a story of abuse or as a story of pushing someone until you get the absolute best out of them or anywhere in between, but the one thing that is inarguable is that it is about passion. And just like Whiplash, La La Land is about passion for art. At the beginning of the film both Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) and Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) are depicted as starving artists in some of the most archetype ways. Mia an aspiring actress working as a barista on a studio lot, which I nevertheless thought was a smart touch. And of course Sebastian has the most thankless of artistic careers—the jazz musician. But aside from the passion that La La Land’s characters have toward their art, what I loved most about La La Land was the passion it shows for Hollywood. This was a golden age film just 60 years too late. Los Angeles is as much a presence in this film as any of the characters; the film is rife with inside jokes like the Prius valet and the opening scene featuring signature LA traffic. What a fantastic way to start the movie—trapped in this horrific traffic, yet we all break out in song! The scene sets the tone for the film exquisitely (and I’m not so cold hearted that I didn’t crack a smile at the contrary take on the meet-cute that Chazelle pulled in this scene).
If I had to pick a movie that would be my number one, I would have never guessed this one. I don’t much like musicals, I don’t like romantic comedies, and I don’t revere the golden age of Hollywood the way that so many film buffs do. In recent years, nostalgia for the golden age has been the focus of films like Trumbo and Hail, Cesar!. I don’t think any have done nearly as good a job as La La Land, however. While movies like Trumbo are more realistic in their depiction—focusing on actual events and people — the golden age of Hollywood is about majesty and deep wellsprings of emotion. Not everything was perfect and shiny from the 1920s to the 1960s. We have all read a history book (well, a few of us have at least). But that was the point of Hollywood before Hitchcock came along and almost single-handedly destroyed the studio system. For 40 years, Hollywood was a factory production line for fantasy and distraction and all the best things there were in life. And it is that part of Hollywood that Chazelle is capturing here. All the key archetypes are in this movie, the budding starlet from small town America, the musical leading man who stands firmly on principle. Even the studio has a featured part in the film—half of Sebastian and Mia’s romance is staged on the lot of the nameless studio. The movie has sound stages, dance numbers, chorus lines, office park auditions, and old single screen movie houses. Much of the movie is intentionally cued right on the nostalgia nose. But that is not at all to say La La Land is a cliché because it is not. It takes familiar elements of cinema and gives them a modern spin. Mia and Sebastian’s love story is so superbly acted and subtly written that the words “I love you” are in the script perhaps one time and even that instance isn’t overplayed. Chazelle lets his actors tell his story. That is so much more compelling than the Love, Actually method, where the actor literally writes out on a bunch of cards why you love someone on and then hams it up for the audience. The end in itself is an innovative twist on the idea of love stories: there is a happily ever after but it’s not the one that the audience is expecting nor is it the one that is conventional.
I haven’t been particularly critical in this piece because at the end of the day, La La Land isn’t Man with a Movie Camera or Citizen Kane. There aren’t going to be many Truffaut-esque pieces written about it. La La Land will likely succumb to history’s weight and fade from our view (or memory?) because too often we make the mistake as a people—not just concerning film but in other matters—to confuse serious for good. We film viewers and consumers of culture have been conditioned to think that for art or music to be worthy, it must be scholarly or literary. It is the reason so many people disregard graphic novels when about it comes to literature even though some of the best writing of the 21st century has been done in that medium. Now that opinion is slowly changing just as it did for television, which is fast becoming the prestige medium of this decade, but that same shift in thinking has not yet been realized when it comes to “happy” art. This is not to say there isn’t good or bad art, there is. A lot of art is not worth talking about. But art can simply be about how it moves you.
What can help distinguish dross from treasure is a reflection on why something moves you, since not everything you like will be good. For example, I saw xXx: Return of Xander Cage this weekend. Absolute piece of garbage—though I loved every second
La La Land tells a story that resonates deeply with me in a very personal way. And judging by the interviews with Damien Chazelle and its two starts, the story is deeply personal for them as well. It is a story of love and passion and losing what is most important to you in search of just that thing. Not enough can be made of how excellent the cinematography, editing, writing, acting, etc. are in this film, but at the end of the day, its success derives from the narrative. There is a melancholic beauty in the final scene where you see Sebastian, years removed from his relationship with Mia, years spent pursuing his passion for jazz, as he sits down at the piano and plays the score to their love. (Likewise, I have lost someone about whom I really cared, and possibly even loved, and at times it feels as if there will never be anyone else, so in response I throw myself into my artistic passions.)
As the dream sequence played and they both relived the what-if of their life, as the piano played, I cried for the first time in a movie since I saw Radio in 2003 and just couldn’t handle it. I don’t know for whom this movie is meant — no one I know has liked it nearly as much as I have. Maybe it calls most tellingly to those who adore the cinema the way I do or for whom the characters’ story feels so real. Maybe that’s really all it is.