La La Land
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenwriter: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J. K. Simmons
Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Rated PG-13 | 128 minutes
Release Date: December 9, 2016
There’s really no simple way to put this, but La La Land is one of those rare, unforgettable movie going experiences that will be talked about for years to come. And that doesn’t even sum up how good it is. Damien Chazelle‘s follow-up to Whiplash reminds us of why we go to the movies, and believe me, this is a movie that needs to be seen in a theater.
The film pays homage to the days of Hollywood where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers graced the screen with beautiful songs and elegant dances. But it is also a love letter to the luster and sparkle of Los Angeles, which attracts the hopeless romantics and the dreamers hoping to find love and reach for the stars, all the while learning that the city can also be crushing and unforgiving. In the end, Chazelle’s latest film is a true work of art that cannot be missed. Check out the full review below.
La La Land is set in a modern-day Los Angeles and centers on two struggling artists: the young actress Mia (Emma Stone) and classic jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Mia goes from audition to audition in hopes of becoming a big time actress, while also working at a Hollywood studio coffee shop to cover the bills. Sebastian is a jazz bar pianist who refuses to play the Christmas-friendly setlist approved by his curmudgeon of a boss (J.K Simmons). But before these two star-crossed lovers can become everyone’s favorite couple, we have to talk about how they first met.
This is diving a bit into spoiler territory, but the film opens with a spectacular one-shot musical number that takes place on a crowded L.A. freeway, where the 105 connects to the 110. The song, “Another Day In The Sun,” energizes the room with its jazzy and sunny disposition, with a vibrant multicultural mix of song and dance. As the camera moves seamlessly through the crowd of the melting pot that is Los Angeles, dancers twist, musicians play, skaters whiz by, and even actors who let go of their frustrations of being in gridlock by bursting out of their vehicles and get into singing and dancing to a song. Did I mention how spectacular this opening sequence was, because I can’t tell you how spectacular it was, you’ll just have to believe me.
It is at that moment that we see Mia and Sebastian meet for the first time, albeit it was a very unhappy encounter. You see Emma is holding up traffic as she recites her lines for an audition, so Sebastian lets out his frustration by giving her a drive-by dirty look, to which Mia responds by flipping him the bird. And so, this soon leads to the two meeting up more frequently, with the both of them denying there is an attraction towards each other. It’s inevitable storytelling, but since Gosling and Stone have such wonderful chemistry together, it works.
The beauty of La La Land doesn’t end with its characters, but the way the story weaves itself into the beauty of the city of Los Angeles. A city where dreams begin and can come true, but can also be crushing and depressing should anything go wrong. Indeed, for a major metropolis like LA to look so glittery, it’s easy to see why the dreamers believe that the city can deliver its promise on making those dreams come true. The way Chazelle shot Los Angeles makes it feel as though the city was an actual character, with the lighting, sounds, and people giving it a personality. It can be sunny and fun even during times of stress when stuck in traffic, and it can be romantic as Sebastian lifts Mia into the starry backdrop of the Griffith Observatory. Then it can be lonely as a single spotlight is cast on the subject at the center of attention. Whatever it is, Chazelle manages to juggle all of these tones with grace.
Because La La Land centers on the ups and downs of trying to achieve that Hollywood dream of making it big, there will be moments that are a bit melancholy if not downright sad. Watching Sebastian and Mia struggle through life as they work menial jobs and make big sacrifices only to see it not pay off can be a bit depressing, but it is a reflection of what goes on in modern-day Los Angeles. “It’s conflict and it’s compromise,” as Sebastian says to Mia. Soon enough, that starts to become the theme of the film, where dreamers don’t achieve their dreams so easily and sometimes it does require a bit of sacrifice. However, there’s also the idea of perseverance and that if you power through the struggle, it will all pay off.
But the beating heart of La La Land is its music. Many have referenced the music and dance numbers as something that came straight out of the ’40s and ’50s, with Gosling and Stone’s on-screen chemistry reminiscent of Astaire and Rogers or Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The music written by Justin Hurwit feels both contemporary and classical at the same time. There is also a bit of commentary on the state of art as it is now, with Sebastian being able to riff off great jazz arts of old, but having to sacrifice his ideals of bringing back classic jazz clubs by joining his friend’s (John Legend) pop jazz band whose music lacks soul. While it may kill Sebastian on the inside, he does this because he wants to live up to the expectations of Mia’s mother. Mia on the other hand, is discovering how unforgiving auditions can really be, and takes it upon herself to do a risky one-woman stage play.
Stone is the real star of the film. Mia often struggles with finding that one role that will get her out of serving coffee. It doesn’t help that the coffee shop she works at is at the heart of a Hollywood studio. Though she is on set, it serves as a constant reminder that if she doesn’t get the job, this is what she will be doing for her whole life. She can be vulnerable at times, but also guarded, especially when she first meets Sebastian. Not to downplay Gosling’s effort, but we’ve seen him as the swooning man who is able to charm any member of the audience with his looks and his words. But the two make each other better in ways they could have never imagined.
While the two are great together on screen, their separate and more personal moments really hone on the intimacy of their characters. Chazelle chooses to shoot these scenes in long or one-shot takes that shine in on both of their performances, with the camera often times zooming in on them. In one instance we see the camera zoom in on Gosling playing the piano, getting closer and closer to his hands then slowly backing away to show that it was really the actor tickling the ivory. For Stone, she takes the center of the frame, alone and with nothing to shield her as the surrounding lights turn down low and all we see is her.
La La Land is poetry in motion. It quite literally sweeps you off your feet and makes you fall head over heels in love with it. It’s the kind of dance you don’t want to finish. From beginning to end, Chazelle gives us terrific performances, music that will leave you floating, and scenery that makes the city of Los Angeles illuminate.
Like Whiplash, Chazelle weaves cinema magic and the power of music together seamlessly. Where its beauty can be found anywhere from the iconic Griffith Observatory and Rialto Theater, to the now defunct Angels Flight. No matter how you look at it, La La Land serves as a reminder that Hollywood musicals are still alive and that if you are looking for a reason to go to the movies, then this movie would be it.