Movie review: Does Academy Awards front-runner ‘La La Land’ live up to all the hype?

While technically any of the films nominated for “best picture” could take home that coveted statuette during the Academy Awards on Sunday night, the front-runner has long been viewed as “La La Land” (though don’t count out “Moonlight” just yet — it could very well pull off an upset). It’s easy to see why Academy voters have fallen head over heels for “La La Land” — it’s an old-fashioned musical with singing and dancing that hearkens back to the days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In many ways, the film is a love letter to the mythos of Hollywood, the magical land where you can follow your dreams and fall in love.

At least, that’s what the film looks like on its surface. Yet even as it celebrates the magic of Hollywood with grand song and dance numbers, it also offers a surprisingly realistic (and poignant) look at how Tinseltown isn’t always full of perfect “happily ever afters.” The film’s ultimate message is that while you shouldn’t give up on your dreams, you should also realize that sometimes life doesn’t work out exactly as we plan.

“La La Land” opens with an exhilarating song and dance sequence in the middle of a Los Angeles traffic jam (yep, it’s a musical, so song and dance numbers happen in unusual places, but the song is so infectious and fun that I willingly went along for the ride). We meet aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), who has come to Hollywood with the hopes of finding auditions and getting her first big break. She doesn’t immediately hit it off with cynical jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), but the audience can spot their chemistry before they do. They end up falling in love as they work towards their dreams.

The movie could have easily ended here, on a happy note, but director and screenwriter Damien Chazelle decides to take a riskier route by throwing some obstacles into his leads’ personal and professional lives. After her auditions don’t pan out, Mia decides to start writing a one-woman play that ultimately doesn’t do much to kick-start her career, either. Sebastian decides to put his dream of opening his own jazz club aside in order to join a successful but more commercialized band. Mia accuses him of selling out; he argues that he’s just being realistic.

I’ll talk about the film’s conclusion in a minute, but no review of “La La Land” would be complete without touching on the music and dancing. While we don’t see a lot of old-fashioned movie musicals anymore, this one works rather well, managing to give off a vibe that’s both traditional and modern. The music is catchy — particularly the opening number, “Another Day of Sun” — and Stone and Gosling are surprisingly nimble on their feet. The song and dance numbers are a genuine joy to watch.

I’ve heard from some who wished the movie ended differently, and I was a bit surprised by how bittersweet the final scene is. Without giving too much away, the ending is in some ways rather sad, quite a contrast from the sunny opening number full of hope and promise. But I also don’t think it’s a completely depressing ending. To me, it communicated the concept that it’s unrealistic to expect to “have it all.” Although life may not work out perfectly, we should keep dreaming, loving, and using our imaginations. Things don’t always transpire the way we’d planned, and that’s okay.

So, now for the big question: does “La La Land” deserve to win best picture? I’ve only seen two of the best picture nominees — this and “Arrival” — so I can’t accurately comment on which of the movies is actually the most deserving. Although I’d love to see “Arrival” win for its thought-provoking sci-fi, I thoroughly enjoyed “La La Land” and haven’t been able to stop humming the songs since I watched it. I wouldn’t mind seeing it dance away with the top prize.

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