All-time Top 10: La La Land

Here’s to the fools who dream…

It took me a long time to fully realize my love of musicals. Sure, I grew up in the Disney Renaissance so most of the earliest movies I saw were musicals, but I didn’t really understand their impact as a seven-year-old. As I got older, I saw some other movie musicals, like Hairspray, Rent and the High School Musical trilogy, and even saw Wicked on stage. Again, they were fun, and I liked the songs, but I never fully appreciated them.

It wasn’t until I saw the 2012 movie version of Les Misérables that something finally clicked. The way the music told the story, the characters, the emotion, the harmonies and melodies… I was obsessed. Over the next few months, I went down a musical rabbit hole, discovering new shows, new songs, and new performers. While this eventually led to my ultimate obsession with Broadway and stage musicals, movie musicals are just as important to this art form. So in 2016 when La La Land came out and was getting a lot of awards attention, I knew I had to see it.

La La Land (2016), directed by Damien Chazelle, is a story about love, but it is not a love story. La La Land follows Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist, and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actor, as they try to break into the industry and chase their dreams. As they both feel the push and pull of success, they struggle to maintain their budding relationship.

Both Mia and Sebastian’s journeys show the hard decisions that have to be made in order to follow your dreams. Mia wants to be an actress, but she struggles in auditions – not always by her own fault, either. The directors and producers she sees don’t always give her their undivided attention or she’s interrupted in the middle of her audition. She decides to take a risk and writes a one-woman show that doesn’t go as well as she expected. She keeps getting beat down to the point where she doesn’t believe she’s good enough to succeed. This is something almost everyone can understand – we’ve all felt unworthy or not good enough to reach our goals. Mia eventually finds success thanks to some supportive nudging from Sebastian and through a producer who saw her one-woman show. Having people who believe in you, even if you don’t, can sometimes change your life.

Sebastian, on the other hand, has such lofty goals that they’re not possible to achieve in the way he wants. His ultimate dream is to open a new jazz club and somehow “save jazz.” But the club he wants isn’t for sale and he can’t hold a steady job to help him work toward that goal. An opportunity comes along that lands him in a successful band, but they’re not playing “his” style of music. Sebastian has to struggle between having financial success and doing what he really wants to do. Like Mia, Sebastian eventually finds success and opens his own club where he can perform the music he loves, but his journey took a few detours in order to get there.

In Mia’s final audition song, she sings about “the fools who dream.” Both Mia and Sebastian are dreamers, and while they both eventually succeed in reaching their goals, it comes at a cost – be it heartbreak, setbacks or jobs they’re not committed to. The “epilogue” shows what their life could have been and the possibility of a happy life together. But ultimately they both found happiness on their own through the mess they made.

La La Land is also a love story to classic Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, and you can really feel that influence throughout the movie’s tone, visuals, and structure. There are plenty of references to classic musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris. With a predominately jazz-based score, La La Land even sounds like a classic musical. The epilogue and the planetarium sequences really give the score huge moments to shine.

The music in La La Land is so good at telling Mia and Sebastian’s love story. The couple’s main theme is first played by Sebastian in the restaurant, and Mia is drawn to it – hinting at a connection neither of them know is there at the time. Mia later hears the theme played at another restaurant when she’s at a dinner with her then-boyfriend. She is supposed to be meeting Sebastian, and the music reminds her where she really wants to be. Shout out to the music team for this movie – Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen, The Greatest Showman), who wrote the lyrics, and Justin Hurwitz (First Man, Whiplash), who did all the composing.

There’s an old musical theater saying that says “if you can’t say it, you sing it; if you can’t sing it, you dance it.” It’s a beautiful idea that illustrate how music and dancing relate to the characters’ emotions. In the “Lovely Night” dance, Mia and Sebastian begin by talking and bantering back and forth. They clearly like each other, but when they can’t think of anything else to say, they start singing. And once they can’t sing anymore, they break out into dance. By the end of the song, it’s obvious they like each other, and their relationship begins to develop.  

And a special shout out to Mandy Moore (no, not that Mandy Moore), the choreographer, for all of these incredible dance sequences. Many of the numbers were shot in one take or made with very few cuts. The end of the opening number on the highway is one long take with dozens of performers and stunts. It’s mind-blowing to realize all the details and planning that went into just one small part of this movie. The “Lovely Night” dance is also shot in one long six-minute take. These long takes are just another homage to classic Hollywood musicals that highlight the actors’ performances.

Speaking of actors, is it even possible for Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone to be unlikable? These two have such great chemistry that they’ve played love interests in THREE movies – La La Land, Crazy Stupid Love, and Gangster Squad. They play off each other so well in both the funny and serious moments. They spent weeks in rehearsals for the big dance numbers, and Ryan Gosling even learned how to play the piano for this role – that’s actually him playing on screen, not someone else.

La La Land is ultimately a story about love and balancing that love with following your dreams. It’s an absolutely gorgeous movie (just pay attention to the colors) with some incredible performances and a bittersweet ending. This is the second Damien Chazelle movie (after First Man) to make it into my all-time top 10, so I’m definitely excited to see what he does next.

All-time Top 10: First Man

“That’s one small step for man…one giant leap for mankind”

First Man (2018) tells the story of Neil Armstrong and his journey to becoming the first man to step foot on the moon. Directed by Damien Chazelle, the film stars Ryan Gosling as Armstrong and Claire Foy as his wife Janet. The movie balances the chaos and danger of the space program with the quiet tension of the Armstrongs’ home life.

I’ve found that I love this movie more and more each time I watch it. Gosling and Foy are phenomenal in their performances and really anchor the entire movie. Ryan Gosling has been around for a long time, but the more of his movies I watch, the more he becomes one of my favorite actors. He can say so much with only his facial expressions – Neil is not a talker, but you always know what he’s thinking or feeling because of Gosling. And Claire Foy is phenomenal as Queen Elizabeth in The Crown and does an incredible job here of making you understand the pressure the wife of an astronaut experienced. She’s trying to raise two sons and maintain a sense of normalcy in their lives with the ever-looming threat that her husband may go out on a mission and never come home again. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over the fact that Gosling and Foy were not even nominated for Oscars for their performances.

I love the way the flight sequences were shot in this movie. Damien Chazelle places the camera so that the audience gets a first-person view, almost like virtual reality goggles or a video game. The behind-the-scenes features show that the special effects team used a massive LED screen to show the earth and moon in real-time so the actors could react to the actual visuals and it all looks amazing. And I can’t talk enough about the entire moon landing sequence. You know they’re going to make the landing, but there is still so much tension in the descent that you almost forget they were successful.

The journey to the moon contains my two favorite shots in the entire movie. The first is on the way to the moon – it’s an extreme wide shot and you just see the command module as this tiny dot flying straight across the screen. It gives the journey a magnitude and perspective on just how far they had to go. After Neil and Buzz land on the moon and have suited up to go outside, they open the lander door to see the moon for the first time. As the camera tracks out the door and enters space, the sound is sucked out along with the atmosphere – and it’s incredible. And – I missed this the first time I saw the movie – the transition to IMAX aspect ratio in that shot blows my mind at how genius it is.

I can’t talk about how much I love this movie without mentioning the amazing score. Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz are quickly becoming one of my favorite director-composer duos. I’m obsessed with the music for La La Land and the Whiplash soundtrack is great as well. The music in First Man is exciting, energetic and emotional. I especially love the intense descending motif and the love theme. I’ll keep going back to the moon landing sequence, but the music for the launch and for the descent to the lunar surface gives me chills every single time.

Neil Armstrong was not your typical hero. He was humble, thoughtful, and focused on completing the task he was assigned to do. For one of the most iconic moments in human history, it’s wild that this movie hasn’t been made already. It’s an important story to tell that reminds people just how crazy, brave, and innovative the astronauts and engineers at NASA had to be to get us to the moon. This movie is also even more fascinating when you watch the recent Apollo 11 documentary and see just how accurate the filmmakers were with these historical moments. First Man is a fascinating look at one of history’s greatest heroes – showing us who he was as a person and humanizing the man who took humanity’s greatest leap.