LA LA LAND (2016) review
written by: Damien Chazelle
produced by: Fred Berger, Gary Gilbert, Jordan Horowitz & Marc Platt
directed by: Damien Chazelle
rated: PG-13 (for some language)
runtime: 128 min.
U.S. release date: December 9, 2016 and December 16, 2016 (limited)
Every year it happens and I never know when. I’ll be watching a movie in a theater and it suddenly hits me that I am watching the best movie of the year. I know, it sounds like hyperbole and it’s such a subjective thing, but I don’t know any other way to explain it. This is how it happens for me and that’s how I felt when I first watched “La La Land” a couple of months ago. The romantic musical dramedy, written and directed by Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) swept me up and pulled me in with its irresistible songs, impressive visuals and relatable story about two self-absorbed fools who dream. I was transfixed by the movie’s ambition and whelmed by its sheer joy, which says volumes for someone who’s generally not a huge advocate for musicals and also says something about how undeniably effective the two leads are here. I believe that anyone can feel as I do about “La La Land”, from start to finish.
Chazelle’s story follows two struggling Los Angeles artists for one year, as they meet, circle around each other and fall in love. Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress aspiring to mark it big in Hollywood, going on countless auditions while working as a barista on a studio lot. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who dreams of opening up his own place that would keep the purity of jazz alive, yet is struggling to play his own music somewhere. The two meet in a fit of road rage and as months pass they can never seem to not bump into each other. An attraction develops between these stubborn dreamers as they bond over chasing their passions, despite being shot down and just about every opportunity. Their growing relationship is fueled by love, as each supports the other in the efforts they pursue as they each take a shot at success. When their pursuits elicit mixed results, Mia and Sebastian are forced to determine whether or not their romance still has the magic it has provided.
“La La Land” is an homage and celebration of those Old Hollywood musicals that no longer get made anymore, the kind that ooze earnestness and romance starring the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, except that Chapelle deliberately steers clear of all the boxes one would check to sync such a film with the conventions those movies are known for. Sure, there’s a ‘girl meets boy’ story here, but this is a movie that resembles the real world more than any idealized fantasies often found in those old musicals. That may be hard to believe considering the magnificent use of color and light and the sweeping camera work from cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“Joy”), but “La La Land” is far from the happily ever after storytelling we’ve come to expect from the 1950’s nostalgia it pays tribute to. Although Chazelle is clearly drawing from the vibrant works of Vincent Minnelli and Jacques Demy, there’s also a struggle and an environment that feels genuine and real, albeit stylized and artful, that grounds the story and themes into something relatable.
Chazelle sets the mood during the opening titles, with a Summit Entertainment logo that feels like something straight out of the 50s and even adding the CinemaScope production to the screen. That quickly follows with a smashing opening number set in the quagmire of a Los Angeles traffic jam on a ramp overlooking other lanes and the city spread out along the horizon. Drivers and passengers get out of their parked cars and break out into song (“Another Day of Sun”), dancing and jumping on and around cars, jubilantly shaking off the irritability of a typical L.A. morning commute. It’s an opening that immediately catches our attention and it’s this highway where Mia and Sebastian first meet, although they don’t talk until much later. We catch up with Mia as she comes home to the apartment she shares with three actor girlfriends, feeling dejected after enduring some painful auditions, but her roommates convince her to go out on the town with them, which finds all four of them breaking out into song (“Someone in the Crowd”) to reassure a reluctant Mia that she’ll never know who she’ll meet if she doesn’t get out there. If those two numbers alone don’t impress anyone who generally scoffs at musicals, then I can’t help you.
There is a humor and lightness to the tone and fluid pacing of “La La Land” and it’s what you’d normally expect from something that’s whimsical or obvious, but instead there’s a genuine endearing quality to the movie that’s genuine and refreshing. It can be seen each time Mia and Sebastian circle each other during their random meet-cute encounters around Los Angeles throughout the year. In any other movie, those moments would come across as cutesy, but there’s the reality of being frustrated or drained by continuously pursuing your dreams here that make the characters and their situations relatable. Chazelle has written such a storyline, one that subverts expectations and injects it with the dialogue that feels real amid the kind of snappy banter that harkens back to those classic musicals.
Yes, this is a musical, but don’t be alarmed if you generally say you’re not into them. It’s important to acknowledge that an musical such as “La La Land” – which is not an adaptation from a Broadway production or a remake of a musical that’s come before it – and the score by Herwitz, as well as the lyrics to the infectious songs written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (known as Pasek and Paul), except for one by John Legend (the rousing “Start a Fire”), who also has a fun supporting role, are all original works. So, even for those who are ignorant to Hollywood musicals or instinctively roll their eyes at the thought of one – I used to be both – the fact that there is original music here should earn the film even some respect before and after seeing it. Not to mention that Gosling spent months learning how to play the piano and Stone has a great, emotive voice (to think Miles Teller and Emma Watson were originally slated to star!), “La La Land” reiterates what a fantastic pairing these two make.
The songs where Mia and Sebastian are singing or dancing together are great and add to the development of their relationship while showcasing some key L.A. landmarks like the Colorado Street Bridge, Watts Tower and Angels Flight, but what’s most surprising is that none of the songs are duds. “A Lovely Night” is a song the duo first sing together after they leave a party in the Hollywood Hills and the way they nonchalantly begin and end the song is charming and clever and then there’s “City of Stars” which shows up a couple of times, first with Gosling’s Sebastian singing and then, once he and Stone’s Mia are well into their relationship, we see both of them singing it while sitting at his piano, each version takes on a different life for where the characters are at. For Mia’s final audition, her last attempt after giving up on the debilitating process, we hear the film’s most emotional and vulnerable song “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, that solidifies all the worthy awards talk Stone has been receiving since “La La Land” worked the festival circuit this fall. All of their songs together contribute an undeniably deep connection to Mia and Sebastian that invites viewers to experience a much more active component in the storytelling.
With “La La Land”, Chazelle has now revolved his three features around jazz (something I gladly welcome), which obviously holds a special place for the filmmaker and Hurwitz. While there’s pressure to perform the desires from within for all to see, “La La Land” is thankfully far removed from the physical and psychological demands Miles Teller’s character experienced in “Whiplash”, the message here is that jazz is dying (sure, that’s a declaration that’s been around for a while, but here, through a couple of conversations Sebastian has to Mia about jazz, it feels like the Gosling’s character is Chazelle’s avatar) and we understand what so many artists realize – that sometimes compromise, at least for a little while, is needed in order to get a specific career path goal. This can be applied to the journey that both characters find themselves on and it will hit home for many struggling artists”.
I’ve seen some complaints that there’s not much to the characters or the story in “La La Land”, something I strongly disagree with since I feel that “La La Land” works on every level, but the film truly rests on the strength of its two leads. Their connection here is convincing and instrumental to the film’s success. I’ve always liked Gosling and Stone, individually and together, for some time and yet I’m quite aware of the bemoaning they’ve received from moviegoers. I can’t understand it, but to that I say there are other performers out there to bemoan. These two are really great here and they’re supported by the likes of John Legend and some small but memorable roles from Rosemary DeWitt, Tom Everett Scott and J.K. Simmons (who reunites with Chazelle after his “Whiplash” Oscar win).
Here is a musical, a movie, that lives up to all its hype and is well worth repeated visits. There is a narrative here that touches on the hope and sadness that comes with chasing your dreams and the closing sequence is just as memorable as the opening sequence, while packing a more thought-provoking punch. We are in a climate of social and political uncertainty and here is a movie that can remove us from all that and remind us of the necessary escape and sublime magic of the movies. We all fall in love and here is a movie we can fall in love with.
I can go on and on about my love for “La La Land” and you can hear me do just that with Kicking the Seat’s Ian Simmons on his podcasts, click: here.