American Culture

The Hoofers’ Guide to Passion, Ambition, Success and Love

Poster of La La Land movie
Click poster for studio’s page on movie

It wasn’t work-of-genius good. In fact La La Land shouldn’t be rated on a four-star system because three and a half stars is ambiguous, but the movie was definitely four stars out of five ****o.

Other write-ups say, often flatteringly, that the stars’ dancing was good, very good even, but not great. That’s the wrong angle. Leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone would have given any level of slick grace if that’s what they were supposed to do. But they weren’t. Even if dancing’s not their first performance skill.

The choreography likely was deliberate, maybe the dancing was designed to not be too memorable. However, I recall the dance scenes clearly, expect that the plan was they were a few steps beyond what you or I could handle, not the spectacle of the mid-20th-century hoofers.

The movie’s opening dance number, which includes but does not feature the two leads, was clever but frankly nothing compared to the opening of the movie adaptation of Hair — longish at 5:43 as it starts seconds before the music and a long moment before the dance.

That’s pretty much the same problem with La La Land’s music. The melodic “City of Stars” theme is memorable and hardy enough to do the work the plot requires of it. But otherwise, we get just pleasant tunes and pleasant wordcraft.

Also, the Gosling character is a 2016-ish jazz musician, a classicist meaning perhaps anything but now (before the ’80s?). The score generally is musical theater style with jazz-swing influence.

The “City of Stars'” melody courses throughout the film.

What is wonderful about La La Land is the script and the acting. This is a love story, not a fairy tale. But a love story with its fingers crossed.

It makes one realize what we’re all used to in movie romances is the “happily ever after.”

No no I’m not spoiling this film by claiming it has a sad ending. That actually will depend on the viewer. La La Land just might have a happily-ever -after — just perhaps not the one that the plot lines up for the first two-thirds. It may be bittersweet, but if the two stars get what they want, is that not “happy”?

That’s because this wonderful script is about finding love as it was promised, but mainly about love and career, love and ambition, and love and passion.

What the movie gives us is a mid-20th-century retro show updated to the ’10s. That’s the ever-present cell phone throughout and early on a wonderful Toyota Prius joke.

Come to think of it, the distinctions among career, ambition and passion were theme elements in shows 70 years ago. That’s one of the many links between La La Land and Singin’ in the Rain, the latter given a fresh burst of interest with the recent death of one of its stars, Debbie Reynolds. Both movies swing love, ambition and passion around changing technology. The new movie’s a bit more on evolving music than stagecraft and the older the reverse, the lurch from silent movies to talkies.

The plot and the directing of the acting (along with excellent cinematography and film editing) make La La Land one of the strongest American movies of the year. The point of the movie after all is about two talented artists at the beginning of their careers. Talent of course is no guarantor of success, nor is finding a mate who really really really perceives what the other is going through.

Gosling’s jazz pianist Sebastian (my grand-nephew’s name!) is more passion than ambition, rather his ambition — running a club for his kind of jazz — is a bit fuzzy, which Stone’s actress character Mia helps him sharpen. Success however, is a measure of either. His storyline considers what success really is and if it’s worth the sacrifice.

Stone’s acting drive is more ambition than passion, her passion being writing. Stone’s choice of ambition has a success gauge, winning some of those auditions. Can her acting ambition be her career, providing a sustaining income?

Is Mia’s ambition stronger than her passion?

Wait, there’s a difference? And what of the usual definition of passion, here Seb’s for Mia and Mia’s for Seb?

That’s where La La Land is a contemporary, convincing story — despite the fantastic fantasy elements of a romantic movie musical comedy — that needs to be told and needs to be heard. Not just when you’re young, but those hard decisions, whether there’s time to fully consider them or not, have wide consequences.

See La La Land for a witty, graceful, melodic and deep examination of what we all do to be happy. Or happy enough.

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