We open on a packed Los Angeles freeway, the sun is shining, the horns are honking and life is good. Sort of. Our love birds haven’t met yet but their lives are already synchronizing to the music of the city: it’s a cacophony of noise, different music coming from each car we pass. Then straight out of Old Hollywood, a song and dance number that’s worthy of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. I’m hooked!
Taking his inspiration from the great MGM musicals of the 1940’ and 50’s, Director Damien Chazelle has shared a vision of beauty, love and hope that makes even the traffic in LA look good. Chazelle takes his inspiration from some of the best musicals ever made. The long, continuous crane shots to film the ensemble dance scenes, the dramatic beauty of the Los Angeles skyline as a backdrop for a budding romance, the dance scenes of our two lovers beset with stylized scenery straight out of “An American in Paris”, Chazelle has created a classic cinematic musical fit for our modern times. He has accomplished the great feat of telling the truth while cinematically sharing the beauty and style of the extraordinary living among the ordinary.
Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, the rude, quirky, difficult, opinionated, stubborn…I could go on and on…extremely talented jazz pianist. His soul is dying while he plays Jingle Bells for diners in a restaurant owned by a tone deaf idiot, played by J.K. Simmons, who is just as rude and opinionated as Gosling’s character. The two duel it out in a repartee worthy of Bing Crosby and Danny Thomas in “White Christmas”.
Meanwhile, his soon to be love interest struggles with the same familiar problems of probably every actress in LA – real life. She works in a coffee shop on the Warner Brother’s lot and gapes at the famous actresses coming through. “If only”….She goes to audition after audition, party after party, hoping for her break, that special person who can make it happen for her.
Cue the second, chance meeting of our star crossed lovers, the first happening on the freeway when Gossling honks at her for not moving her car an inch forward in the traffic jam. She gives him the finger and we’re off! Okay, that part wouldn’t have appeared in Old Hollywood, but the rest is pure magic. Sort of. Their second chance meeting happens when, while looking for her car, Mia (played by Emma Stone) hears his piano playing from outside the restaurant and goes in to hear more. It’s that moment in great Hollywood films, when the Heroin comes face to face with the kind of magic she believes in, the kind of magic her soul recognizes. Unfortunately, our Hero isn’t in the mood for magic.
Their third and fateful meeting ushers in the period of romance and what a romance it is, full of dancing and singing! Mia gets a dig in when she requests the song, I Ran, by A Flock of Seaguls in retaliation for Sebastian’s behavior at the restaurant. He is playing keyboard for an 80’s Cover band at a party she is attending. Let’s just say that her point is made, and the two are off to a lovely, rocky, realistic relationship. This is where the film diverges from traditional Hollywood musicals. The bumps in the romance are realistic and believable, all too relatable to today’s audience. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that it had been so long since I’d seen a movie like this; I’d forgotten how it feels to really root for a character. I had forgotten what it was like to feel so good at the movies.
Gosling and Stone pull off every part of the movie with the style it deserves. They sing, they dance, they love, they cry; The audience loves them! Everyone must love them because if you don’t, you’re just dead inside. That’s just a fact.
Choreographer Mandy Moore has produced the kinds of dances that could not be better. They are straight out of “Singing in the Rain” with modern movements that are flawless in their conception if not their execution. While Gosling and Stone aren’t Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, we don’t expect them to be. They are the guy who plays the piano and the girl who acts. And they are wonderful.
The jazz in this film is exquisite. John Legend blends well with Gossling and gives us a taste of what life is like as a successful musician, on the road and in the studio. It is this realistic but not jaded look at a musician’s life that provides the first bump in the road for our lovers. What follows is a very realistic sequence of events that have played out in every artist’s life: how to blend the work with your relationship. They both have dreams, and these dreams are at the very heart of what makes them, them. Who are they without them? What sacrifices will they make for their dreams?
As we come to the end of the film, we are shown a look at what might have been for our lovers. What if….this had happened instead of that? What if she had been here, and he had gone there? But we are reminded that there are many roads we may take, many choices we must make, and as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are many different kinds of love, but never the same love twice.”