Review: La La Land
While there’s been more than a few musicals done in the past few years that have been grating to sit through, La La Land succeeds by taking so much of its charm from the genre’s highpoint of classic Hollywood and French New Wave style.
The opening musical number (done in one single amazing take), which recalls the cinema of Jacques Demy in its construction, sets the stage for the film as dozens of motorists on a gridlocked freeway break out into song and dance (“Another Day of Sun”). It’s a truly amazing sequence, just based on the sheer work that went into filming and choreographing all the movement, but more importantly it foregrounds how this is the type of musical where the audience should expect the unexpected, where songs will be sung without warning, and even though it takes inspiration from the past, La La Land intends to be a reimagining of the past rather than a tribute.
It’s the story of Mia (Emma Stone), an actress with dreams of superstardom, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who is deadset on making a living from his passion. The two initially come in contact through unfriendly circumstances, but after a stimulating dance sequence towards the end of the first act, they are repositioned as sweethearts destined for each other, and the film follows the pursuit of their ambitions, amidst the harsh realities of the entertainment world.
Given its genre, the music obviously comes first here, and the compositions done by Justin Hurwitz (with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) are all wonderful in their structure. Two tracks of note; “City of Stars”, a despondent sounding rumination on the sense of loneliness that comes from living in a big city, and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” sung by Mia towards the end in a powerful heartfelt moment, are easy contenders for an Original Song nomination at the Oscars, and will surely go down as iconic in their own right.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling give career best performances here, and their chemistry is on the level of a pairing such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or even Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Both triple threats – in their immense talent as actors, singers, and dancers, you really get to feel a sense of kinship with how they display their inner emotionality through the simplest movements and expressions. Gosling in particular gets to shine in a way he hasn’t been able to before as Sebastian, injecting lots of charisma and an equal dose of melancholy. It’s hard not to find appeal for his character, a real dreamer who doesn’t believe in quitting on where he wants to be in life. Emma Stone is a perfect foil for Gosling here, as an aspiring actress working as a barista on the Warner Bros studio lot, with love for cinema’s past and her own desire to one day be among the biggest and brightest. She moves between being courage, optimism, panic, and utter devotion throughout, and this sense of dynamism lends itself to being an utter standout performance, especially in that final song where she gives it her all as a performer.
But perhaps the most important figure associated with La La Land is director Damien Chazelle, who at only 31 has become one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood. Here he shows just how much love and passion for cinema is in his arsenal, crafting an end result that is stunning and has the makings of a future classic. A lot of the decisions he makes here pull of in engaging the viewer with the story on a deeper level, from injecting brief asides of magical realism to having his actors learn to play the instruments their characters are experts at. He understands that while it would be easier to replicate the effect of aural elements in post-production, having them delivered first-hand in the captured moments is far and away more effective in its delivery, and its clear from beginning to end that the effort certainly pays off.
From a purely visual standpoint, the film is packed with a richly detailed color palette and an imaginative sense of visual splendor, even when gloomy moments come about during its second and third act. This last part, while full of great moments, will certainly divide audiences (and certainly takes more than a few cues from Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) but more than anything it showcases how La La Land is in essence, a post-modern reworking of the musical genre.
With La La Land, Damien Chazelle has crafted another major masterpiece that feels like the exact opposite of his breakout film Whiplash. Personally speaking, I knew this was going to be a special film from the moment the title came up after the first song ended, and my audience gave it a rousing standing ovation. While some could argue that its nothing but a derivative tribute to other, better films, it’s hard to deny the level of passion for the art that is on hand here, and it completely succeeds in its lofty aims. In being a thoroughly dazzling, enchanting, wonderfully composed musical, La La Land is quite simply a movie you must see in a theatre, as it’s pure movie magic and a contender for the best film of the year.