LA LA LAND
2016, PG-13, 126 mins.
Ryan Gosling as Sebastian / Emma Stone as Mia / Rosemarie DeWitt as Laura / J.K. Simmons as Bill / John Legend as Keith
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Labeling LA LA LAND as just a musical would be woefully simplistic.
Yes, it's a musical that's a loving ode to the classic Technicolor musicals of the Golden Age of the genre, to be fair. However, it's also a heartfelt tribute to the movies themselves, young love, the city of Los Angeles, jazz music, and the perseverance and determination of intrepid artistic minds to see their hopes and dreams through to successful fruition when faced with overwhelming odds.
If anything, LA
LA LAND wears its influences proudly and confidently, and it's a
wondrously entertaining movie from Damien Chazelle, the superlative
31-year-old writer/director of the startling effective WHIPLASH
(also musically themed).
There have been innumerable attempts made by intrepid filmmakers to
recapture old Hollywood glamour for modern day consumption...and
this is one of the most masterfully conceived and executed.
establishes its infectiously jubilant tone right from the get-go in a
bravura opening sequence, done with ingeniously engineered long takes and
painstaking camera pans showcasing hundreds of L.A. commuters - all stuck
in a massive traffic jam - as they shake away the misery of their current
situation through song and dance.
The sounds of the idling engines, honking horns, radio music, and
eventual sung lyrics by the citizens creates a rich homogenized sonic
environment to get categorically lost in; it's one of the most
sensationally realized openings for any musical of recent memory.
It's also during this sequence when LA LA LAND's two lead
characters lock eyes and meet for the first time, albeit under stressful
and less than ideal circumstances (one angrily flips the other the
bird in a brief instance of mild road rage).
One of them is
Mia (an astoundingly effective Emma Stone), an aspiring actress that works
a lowly job as a barista while struggling though one audition after
another in a desperate attempt to get noticed.
Even though she's plucky, headstrong, and determined, she's
nevertheless dogged by constant professional rejection.
The other is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, radiating suave charisma), a
jazz musician that too is struggling for occupational legitimacy.
He's richly talented and dedicated to his craft, but his
unwillingness to modernize his music has hurt him from achieving
Of course, these two lost souls reunite after their brief exchange on that aforementioned freeway.
Their initial friendship blossoms into romantic love and, in many
ways, this is further manifested in their mutual support of the other to
achieve their artistic goals.
Complications, as they always do, rear their ugly heads and puts a
damper on their respective happiness with one another.
LA LA LAND is a
pure audio-visual technical marvel to experience.
The city of L.A., in its own major way, becomes a third main
character for Chazelle here, and the film's sun drenched panoramic vistas make
the City of Angels look positively gorgeous.
The lush and vibrant color palette is boldly evocative and
does the story great service (Chazelle opens up the film with an old
school logo that proudly proclaims that the film was shot in CinemaScope...something
that feels legitimate and not like a wink-wink stylistic gimmick).
The heavily romanticized look and feel of LA LA LAND's
environments is refreshing, especially during our current cinematic age
where dark cynicism taints far too many films.
There are many individual moments - all beautifully choreographed
and sustained - that shows just how well Chazelle and company have studied
the classic musicals of old that served as obvious influences.
In many respects, LA LA LAND feels like it was made decades ago
during the heyday of the big screen musical, but very much maintains a
contemporary vibe...a tricky dichotomy that, no doubt, was enormously
difficult to achieve here.
numbers themselves are effervescently joyous to watch, all of which manage
to celebrate not only the endless dreamlike aura of L.A., but also the
story's two souls - unlucky in their art, but lucky in love - that have
found kinship amidst their hardships.
One sequence in particular is serenely poetic, as Sebastian
takes Mia out to see REBEL WITHOUT
A CAUSE, which she has never seen.
The screening suffers from projection issues, which leaves Sebastian
thinking on his feet and taking Mia on an impromptu visit to the Griffith
Observatory (a key landmark that also figured heavily in the iconic James
As the scene reaches a breathtaking crescendo we witness Mia and
Sebastian literally float in the air and dance around the multiple
exhibits that surround them.
Consciously, I was aware that these actors were suspended on wires,
but subconsciously it felt magically; the illusion was swiftly immediate.
course, live and breathe on the magnetic charms of their stars, and LA LA
LAND is always in resoundingly assured form with the innately agreeable
pairing of Gosling and Stone, both of whom have played lovers twice before
in CRAZY STUPID LOVE and GANGSTER
There is no other on screen couple in a film from 2016 - or perhaps
any recent year, for that matter - that has their instant chemistry; you
rarely, if ever, doubt any moment that they occupy the screen together.
Gosling has a smooth as silk vocal range as a singer that matches
his flawlessly chiseled mug, but it's perhaps Stone that that deserves a
lion's share of the credit for fully emerging here in her most fleshed out
and complete performance of her career.
Not only can she match her co-star as an accomplished singer, but
there's also the manner that she dials into Mia's emotional fragility and
melancholy that makes LA LA LAND all the more dramatically potent.
And, holy hell, can Stone and Gosling ever dance as well, which is
highlighted during one superb early scene that would make Gene Kelly or
Fred Astaire blush with envy.
If LA LA LAND
were to have any faults then it would certainly be in its narrative
trajectory for these characters, which does take some obligatory paths
(you just know that one will achieve success with the other still
ravenously clamoring for it, thusly creating a wedge between them).
Chazelle also seems to lose the show stopping momentum he generated
early on in the film, and there are some dry spots here and there when LA
LA LAND forgets that it's...well...a musical.
Yet, the whole unfolding of Mia and Sebastian's story arc is
anything but trite and conventional in the manner that Chazelle
miraculously crafts an ending that is able to be both heartbreakingly sad
and satisfyingly uplifting at the same time.
Without given much away, he gives us one ending - drenched in
regret and sorrow - and then abruptly gives us an alternate climax that
shows how things could have been for its starry eyed lovers. I
love it when films like this take gutsy challenges in subverting audience
expectations, and Chazelle shows great respect for his viewers in his
uniquely handled, but surprisingly powerful denouement.
Watching LA LA LAND made me think of the greatest examples of the silver screen musical genre, but Chazelle isn't obsessed with outright mimicking them here. Some films, like, say, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS played the nostalgia card so aggressively that it all but appropriated the basic storyline of the film it was paying massive homage to. Chazelle achieves something far more satisfyingly nuanced with LA LA LAND. He's paying the utmost respect to landmark musicals without lazily rehashing their familiar plot beats and conceits. LA LA LAND is bathed in marvelous nostalgia, but it's not slavish to it. It's a painstakingly crafted musical that triumphantly stands proudly its own two feet while paying respect to the lineage of past genre examples. That's what ultimately makes LA LA LAND feel simultaneously and revitalizingly novel and familiar at the same time. That, and resurrecting a relatively dead genre like this is no easy feat, which makes Chazelle's achievement here all the more remarkable.
LA LA LAND is a film that loves music, movies, dreamers, and romance...and it's slyly self aware without coming off as arrogantly so. Leaving the screening I found it hard to wipe the smile off of my face. Not too many modern films cast such a euphoric glow over me...but this one did.