Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt
Run Time: 2 hours 8 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG- 13
I liked Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. It was a little dour for my tastes, but it had an excellent sense of rhythm in both the editing and the music itself, and it had probably the most gonzo, purely experiential ending of the whole year. So while I wasn’t in love with it, I had a good time. When I found out that his follow-up feature La La Land would go full-blown musical, paying homage to classic Hollywood and reuniting Emma Stone with Ryan Gosling, I was excited. If you’re a director I’m still iffy on, there’s hardly a better genre to choose to get me on your side.
All I can say is, it worked.
In La La Land, down-on-her-luck actress Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who wants to prevent the style from becoming a lost art, keep crossing paths in the streets of Los Angeles. Although they don’t get along at first, their interactions blossom into a romance for the ages as they both set out to follow their dreams over the course of a hurdle-filled year.
Basically, the life story of any decent human being in 2016.
If you’re busy and don’t have time to sit through an entire review, just let me say this: La La Land is magical. It doesn’t take a genius to glance at Chazelle’s filmography and intuit that he loves jazz, but when you’re sitting in front of La La Land, there’s no question about it at all. His love for music leaps from every frame in a rhythm you feel, deep inside, your own heartbeat acting as a metronome.
Everything he learned from Whiplash he buffs to shining, shimmering perfection here. La La Land is an emotional, experiential film that grabs your hand and sweeps you up with it, depositing you back in your seat with yet another ending that slams you back against your cushion, barely able to manage a squeak of “oh, f**k.” Only this time it comes at the tail end of a movie that unequivocally earns that pure energy every step of the way. I find it embarrassing when people clap for movies in the theater as the credits roll, but I spontaneously burst into applause this time, not even realizing where I was. La La Land is less like a film and more like a human being performing directly to you, spilling its heart and soul all over the screen.
I don’t want to get hyperbolic, because overhype might shatter this delicate, tender film, but I’m working hard to convey the feeling of ineffable pure emotion that it creates. It’s not a perfect film. Some of the Hollywood satire is a little obvious. Some of the close-up shots looked weirdly flat. But it’s one of the best times I’ve had in a theater all year, and that’s even more important than being flawless.
Someone should have let Stanley Kubrick know about that.
La La Land is a musical the likes of which hasn’t graced American screens in, oh, a millennium or two. A throwback to classic movie musicals in its blend of smoky jazz and dizzy production numbers, it combines Old Hollywood glamour and glitz with a more modern realism in its approach to character and plot. Although the grand, choreographed numbers that open the film are fizzy delights, there’s a certain solemnity buried deep within them, about how those with unrecognized talent feel alienated by the peppy-happy gloss of it all. Honestly, it’s the best of both worlds. It handles the same themes of art vs. humanity that Whiplash tackled, but with less aggressive grimness.
Bringing reality into this musical is honestly the best thing for it, because it avoids being an empty, whimsical artifice while at the same time lending a degree of sparkle to the bitter streets of Los Angeles. In the film’s best number “A Lovely Night,” Stone and Gosling slip and slide on the gravel of a hilly road overlooking a vast purple sky, sneaking a bit of grandeur into a mundane urban setting. This is the level La La Land pretty much always operates on, converting real life locations into a fairy tale of asphalt and concrete.
Chazelle pulls out all the stops here, draping his frame in bright primary colors both in the lighting and the fabulous costuming. Every frame bursts with life, so when the more dreamlike sequences arrive, they don’t jar with the augmented reality they emerged from.
This is what the world would look like if I was in charge.
It’s a relentlessly beautiful film and I could talk about that all night, but I regretfully must move on because we need to talk about the actual music. This is a musical, after all, and how often do we get a chance to talk about those anymore? I’m a huge fan of big production numbers, and even though La La Land quickly settles into a more subtle register, it kicks off with two incredibly impressive setpieces, using swooping camera moves and infrequent cutting to let the dancers really inhabit the space.
Then, when the film reduces itself to just Gosling and Stone, they shine in their own way. Although neither of them ahs the best voice (Gosling has a “playing guitar at a bonfire” roughness and Stone’s smoky voice translates well enough to song, although she tentatively avoids leaving a very narrow range), they have charisma in spades, and they can dance much better than I ever thought could be possible. They nail a beautifully clever tap number and recognize that in musical theater, personality is what’s most important.
They shine onscreen and then are generous enough to allow themselves to be swallowed up by bombastic design sequences with the stagebound, overflowing aesthetic of the fantasy sequence in Singin’ in the Rain. And although I’m not a huge fan of the repeated, droning motif of the song “City of Stars,” every other track is a perfect match for the film, even the instrumentals, which I normally don’t care for in a musical.
Their chemistry outside of the music is likewise unassailable. For the second time this year, Gosling brings humor in surprising and endearing little ways, and Stone is the perfect sharp but vulnerable foil for his brassy faux confidence. They push and pull one another in a timeless, frequently hilarious romance full of color, life, and light. Literally. Every chance he gets, Chazelle launches Stone and Gosling into literal spotlights, singling them out from the crowd in the most shamelessly cinematic way possible.
God, this was a pretty movie.
At one point, Sebastian is asked how it’s possible for a traditionalist to be revolutionary. Well, La La Land answers that question. It’s both a dazzling nostalgia trip and an exciting, electric update of a classic story that combines both old and new into a dazzling, truthful, utterly pure cinema experience, capturing the glories of life with buoyant energy, whether they be as grand as a dream coming true or as intimate as holding hands for the first time in the movie theater.
TL;DR: La La Land is a gorgeous exercise in Old Hollywood nostalgia.
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