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A Moonlight review of La La Land

author: mac brocka&c editor

La La Land was the best film of the year. But also Moonlight.
| Youtube Screenshot and Rocor via Flickr

A review of La La Land, and not Moonlight.

Okay, let’s friggin’ talk about La La Land. Listen, I’m a patient guy; I can handle criticism of things that I like. But, I will not tolerate another word against Damien Chazelle’s charming, romantic, musical masterpiece. Is it perfect? No, it tells the story of a white saviour of an entirely historically black artistic expression. Does another film do that much better? I saw Moonlight last week and it’s a gorgeously crafted portrait of young black lives. But this isn’t a Moonlight review, okay?

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone offered us a masterclass in onscreen chemistry, and boy did we get schooled. They may not have been classically trained musical theatre actors, but that was the charm of it! It wasn’t clean or refined. They were real people struggling through the day. And don’t try to tell me you haven’t gotten their duet, “A Lovely Night,” stuck in your head. Were there other great performances this year? Sure. Remember Janelle Monae? She was featured on some big tracks in the early 2010s and was also incredible in Moonlight. Watch House of Cards? Love Remy Danton, played by Mahershela Ali? As father-figure mentor Juan in Moonlight, he will blow your perspective of masculinity wide open. But did Janelle and Mahershala transport me into another dimension of love and magic? I don’t think so. That honour belongs to king and queen Ryan and Emma, alone.

One of the most important parts about La La Land was its structure. All of my musical-loving friends have been complaining on Facebook that it’s not a “real musical,” because it only has a couple big musical numbers near the beginning, then not much after about the halfway point. Listen here, punks, just because you didn’t notice that the slow fade of theatricality in the musical numbers paralleled the crushing reality of Mia and Sebastian’s romantic ambitions doesn’t mean you have the right to criticize this compelling flip of typical musical structure. The film is a critique of romanticism in show business – and as their dreams start coming true, so too does the magic. I don’t think I need to talk about the closing number. If I do, I might cry again, and I don’t have time for that, okay? You can’t try and convince me that there’s another film this year that had the same commercial success and flipped the script on storytelling quite the same as – oh, wait. Moonlight dealt with a young boy growing up through terrible circumstances at different milestones in his life, and each act of the film was shot in a separate film stock to reflect a different aesthetic connected to the tone of the main character’s life at that point in time. That’s also pretty neat, sure, but this is a La La Land review, not a Moonlight review.

Don’t believe me about La La Land? Just ask the critics: La La Land has tied All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997) for the most Oscar nominations in a year. At the Golden Globes, the film was nominated for seven awards. How many of those seven did it win? Seven. You heard me, all seven of them. Directing, writing, song, score, best picture (for a comedy or musical) and best leading actor and actress for Ryan and Emma. Moonlight wasn’t even nominated for leading actor or actress at the Golden Globes or Academy Awards. I mean, okay, fair – Mahershela Ali and Naomie Harris were nominated for supporting roles, but where are the leading nods? Oh, right, it has an overwhelmingly talented ensemble cast that has no sure-fire star, but rather a series of stunning character revelations in an entire community. But hey, Emma Stone has Meryl Streep beat!

If you aren’t sold on the movie as a whole, it helps to know that La La Land is a reflection of its own development through some difficult times for writer/director Chazelle. He and Justin Hurwitz started working on the concept as a part of their senior thesis at Harvard University, but production on the screenplay came to a halt when Focus Features wanted Chazelle to cut some of the moments of the film that are now recognized as some of the highlights – the heart-stopping opening number, the melancholy closing, and switching jazz out for rock ‘n’ roll – to justify funding a contemporary musical with no prior following. Chazelle held out, just like Sebastian, to make sure his passion project was done properly. Then came Whiplash, Chazelle’s breakthrough film, which went on to pick up five Oscar nominations including Best Picture. From there, he was a rising star, and was given full reign to make the film he needed to make. 2016 was all the better for it. No other film in 2016 has the same success story. Well, okay, full disclosure, Moonlight was based on In Moonlight Black Boys Turn Blue, a stageplay by Tarell Alvin McCraney. McCraney wrote it as a semi-autobiography about his mother’s fight with and eventual death from AIDS. The script was never produced until Barry Jenkins discovered it and used it as the basis for Moonlight’s screenplay. Both Jenkins and McCraney had a male protector after losing their fathers, and both writers’ mothers struggled with crippling substance abuse. It was the breakthrough for both men into mainstream media after a lifetime battling a pain-ridden past. Compared to two white guys upgrading their Harvard thesis, Moonlight is a true, modern success story.

For 2016 film, there’s no question that one film stands out at the top. It featured world-class performances, unforgettable visuals, universal acclaim, and the development story to boot. Moonlight tackles intersectionality, sexual identity, substance abuse, bullying, poverty, and a wealth of other issues for our young black boys without patronizing or manipulating. It’s an honest film that says no more or no less than the truth and what is necessary to say.

Hold on a second. Wasn’t this a La La Land review? La La Land is a great film. It was very entertaining. The music is bright and cheery, and this review really dug itself into a hole.

Whatever, La La Land was fun, go see Moonlight.

About Mason Sliva