LA LA LAND
This is a review for the critically acclaimed Drama/Musical “La La Land”, Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash). La La Land is set in modern-day Los Angeles and centers on the lives of a young aspiring actress, Mia (played by Emma Stone) and struggling Jazz pianist, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). The story follows them on their journey of love over the course of a year. The film also stars John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt and J.K Simmons. Musicals have been a part of Hollywood since virtually the beginning, some having been more successful than others. For such a long time it was the work of Fred Astaire (Top Hat and Swing Time) through the 30’s and 40’s that captivated theater-goers. It wasn’t really until Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s, Oscar-nominated “Singin’ In The Rain”, that there became a benchmark for the Hollywood musical and how to do one right. Then came “Mary Poppins” in 1964 and “The Sound Of Music” in 65′, where strides were made in the genre, with both pictures taking home 5 Oscars each. If memory serves me correct, there wasn’t much of note in the decades that followed, though don’t hold me to that (having not ever been a fan of the genre). Adam Shankman’s, “Rock Of Ages” was really the first (and perhaps only) time that I’ve ever truly embraced a musical. To be fair, I don’t think true fans would necessarily class it as that type of film and maybe that’s why I liked it. The music choices were what separated it from anything else I’d seen prior. I enjoyed the fact that the songs being showcased were actually covers from bands (mostly 80’s and 90’s stuff) instead of people singing just because. Chazelle’s, La La Land is a return to the genre roots, So how does it fare?
Chazelle has been writing scripts for over a decade and actually penned several that became feature films, namely “Grand Piano” and “10 Cloverfield Lane”. It was his Oscar-nominated “Whiplash”, a film about a gifted young jazz drummer studying at a music conservatory, that really showed what a wonderful filmmaker he is. After doing a bit of digging, I discovered that he’d actually written the script for La La Land years ago and was just waiting for the right time and avenue through which to make it. No matter how you spin it this is risky filmmaking, yet somehow it manages to toe the line, even function exquisitely as an homage to the golden era of Hollywood cinema, while at the same time injecting a specific contemporary flare into the mix. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t seen anything quite like it. Mia and Sebastian’s story is told across the four seasons of the year, individually introduced to the viewer over the course of the 128 minute running time. The film opens on a freeway in LA during peak hour. From there, the beat fades in, carrying us into the dazzling an energetic musical number “Another Day Of Sun”. Said sequence is superbly choreographed and appears to have been cleverly shot in one continuous take, a true feat by Chazelle’s DP (director of photography), Linus Sandgren. The opening contains so many moving parts and colors (literally a stack of extras) and an array of fresh forms of dancing and singing. To capture all that in the space of 5 minutes is truly outstanding. It’s evident from the start that this isn’t the type of film that simply relies on its leads to carry all the weight. Even though they’re still clearly the focus when in the frame, everybody else has their moment in the spotlight too. Each one as good as the next. All the cinematography is expertly crafted, as is the dancing and singing, with not a single beat missed in Mandy Moore’s carefully constructed choreography.
We’re treated to many more fabulous musical numbers as the film transitions through its various stages. A lot of the best songs were arranged by Justin Hurwitz, there’s the spirited “A Lovely Night”, which includes tap and swing dance and sees Mia and Sebastian together for the first time overlooking the city lights. An upbeat, “Someone In The Crowd” allows Mia and her roommates to get crazy, going from their apartment, to the street and eventually finishing at an extravagant Hollywood party. Hurwitz is also a master of the ballad, with two renditions of “City Of Stars”, one by Sebastian as he gathers his thoughts on a boardwalk and the other during a romantic dinner with Mia. “The Fools Who Dream” plays in the last act of the film an adds a healthy amount of optimism towards Mia’s outcome in life. In the end, the highlight has to be “Late For The Date”, Mia and Sebastian’s primary theme that’s played several times on the piano throughout the film. The issue with every musical that I’ve ever seen is that none of the songs ever felt spontaneous or remotely believable in the context of the story. Each of the musical numbers in La La Land feel completely organic, as if this could actually happen and develop in the same fashion that it does on-screen. No one here ever sings about fairies or tulips or mountains, and you know why? Because if it were real life they never would. For me that’s always been the hardest thing to swallow with any of the Hollywood musicals. Would I listen to the music outside the world of the film? Probably not, it’s not really my style. With that said, I am a musician and given the type of film this is, Chazelle and his music department have created a truly memorable soundtrack. It mixes modern Dance, Pop and Jazz music, as well as a hint of that Big Band style. In addition to the music, Mary Zophres costume design is excellent too. Ryan and Emma wear a number of elegant pieces over the course of the film, changing according to the tonal shifts and seasons. Chazelle always balancing the throwback to the 20’s and 30’s aesthetics, as well as making those that inhabit Mia and Sebastian’s world appear vibrant and free.
The thing that’s so impressive about Chazelle’s film is that the drama is always front and center, the music and dancing only serve as a vehicle for any unspoken disposition. I love that this isn’t just a musical for the sake of it, there’s plenty of interesting dynamics at play. There’s a certain amount of material covering how we can often drift in an out of people’s lives without there ever being a constant. Life is just a random bunch of moments and coincidences that we choose to identify as order because we can’t stand the idea of chaos. The more logical explanation is that some of us are meant to cross paths, even if only for a short time and others are simply not. The movie also has a bit of a dig at the ruthlessness of the industry and working in Hollywood, regardless of the type of art form. Those instants will probably resonate with anyone who feels they haven’t always been given fair opportunity etc. Stone actually said there was an element of life imitating art, with her own experience in early auditions closely resembling that of Mia’s in the film. La La Land also has its share of light-hearted moments and entertaining interactions too. Most notably, Sebastian playing in an 80’s style cover band. Mia and Sebastian are both timeless characters and they’re played perfectly by Stone and Gosling. The success of the film heavily relies on the chemistry between this adorable pairing, who we’ve seen together on two other occasions in “Crazy Stupid Love” and “Gangster Squad”. Damien knew exactly what he was doing when he cast these two and they’re so tangible. Stone is a mix of girl next door and an old school starlet, which works superbly. She’s not conventionally beautiful but she’s captivating, bubbly and pure in her own way. As for Gosling, he’s the one all the ladies love. He makes no apologies for tapping (pardon the pun) into a bit of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly with his attire and sense of confidence, but it’s that ability to excel at everything he does that makes him so damn good. In preparation for the film, Gosling learned the piano for 6 weeks and every note he plays is really him playing.
There’s really only one genuine complaint I have with La La Land and it should come as no surprise when I say it’s one of the musical numbers. In all fairness, it’s not the musical number itself, it’s the visuals and Chazelle taking a few liberties with creative license. In one particular sequence, Mia and Sebastian defy gravity and float up into space where they continue the second part of their dance. It’s only about a 2 or 3 minute scene but it’s the one part that momentarily took me out of the story which I was completely immersed in up until then. I’d imagine that the scene is just a metaphorical reference to feeling and or falling, in love. I don’t know because I’ve never felt that feeling but the consensus is that true love makes you feel like your on cloud nine, out of this world so to speak. Considering everything else in the films universe felt grounded, I think that particular scene should have been cut and the film wouldn’t have lost anything. I have to mention the ending of the film as well because there are valid reasons for why it’s both good and bad. I’m not one to usually invest in the man/woman relationship in the world of film. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just not usually at the forefront of my mind when watching something. Obviously, with this being a Drama/Romance set in the world of a musical, you have no choice but to try to engage with the characters. So I have to give it credit in making me (a 30-year-old, single male who hates musicals) get behind this film, the couple and what they represent. I like the true to life approach and the way things come full circle but my preference would have been for a slightly different conclusion.
I’ve always liked both Gosling and Stone and most of the work they’ve done thus far in their careers. In addition, Chazelle’s previous film “Whiplash” was fantastic but set in a very specific world of music. If you had of told me that his next film was going to be music based as well and that he’d team up with this pairing, I would’ve automatically assumed that I’d hate it and that it would flop… boy was I wrong. Chazelle has written a nicely layered script that sashays across the course of a year in these two individuals lives, both as individuals and as a couple. It acts as a throwback to the golden age of Hollywood musicals, while still remaining bright and fresh in its modern setting. The colors are glorious, the cinematography cutting edge and the musical numbers larger than life. I genuinely enjoyed all the music and the heart of the film. You have to respect Damien’s tackling of the universal struggle that we each have with the various relationships in our own lives, at the same time he touches on the rejection and disheartening nature of the film industry itself. The pacing is perfect and Stone and Gosling (who have already received Golden Globes) are every chance of bringing home Oscars, as is Chazelle, with a potential sweep on the cards. Somehow, and don’t ask me how, but someone has finally made a musical worth your time that surpasses all those before it (this coming from someone who doesn’t even like them). La La Land is an exceptional film by a truly talented young filmmaker, and I for one can’t wait to watch him over what I’m sure will be a long and illustrious career.
My rating for “La La Land” is 9/10