Film Review – La La Land
La La Land
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) is many things, but most of all it is a celebration. It basks in the wonder and excitement of young love, the optimism of the dreamer, the nostalgia of classic Hollywood, and the emotion of musical fantasy. Chazelle – whose last film Whiplash (2014) took a cynical look at the extremes musicians take for perfection – makes a complete turn with this musical romance. There is heart bursting at the seams in every frame. In a time where uncertainty and division has invaded the public consciousness, here is a picture that reminds us of the goodness of people, that there’s warmth and kindness still left for us to embrace.
Chazelle (who writes and directs) loves classic film, there is no doubt about that. His affection doesn’t extend to just one period or a genre, he extends to all parts of Golden Age Hollywood. Keen observers will see references all over the place, from Alfred Hitchcock to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, to Gene Kelly and everything in between. This is a story where characters’ bedrooms are decorated with classic movie posters, and colors pop wherever you look (it was shot in Cinemascope). The editing – especially during montages – call back to the musicals of the twenties and thirties, where neon lights are accompanied by champagne overflowing into glasses. He shoots in famous L.A. landmarks (the Griffith Observatory to name one). He uses all of these classic ingredients and translates them through 21st century perspective.
In this world lives Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). She is a struggling actress; making ends meet working at a café on the Warner Brothers lot while going to audition after audition. He is a jazz pianist, hoping to open his own club where he can play the kind of music he wants. This is now the third (and best) pairing of Stone and Gosling. They have perfect on screen chemistry. Chazelle plays up that connection both in the musical set pieces and in the dialogue scenes. We can sense where they are in their relationship through physicality and wordplay. They’re a joy to see together, an early stroll through a road overlooking the city lights springboards their romance, and once we see them dance we realize they’re a match made in cinematic heaven.
The structure has a crisp, clear path. Even when Chazelle jumps around in time or location, Tom Cross’ editing keeps us locked in place. We never lose the purpose of a scene, and the musical interludes contribute to the narrative instead of stalling it. Whiplash won an Academy Award for its editing, and my assumption is that La La Land will be right there in the conversation as well. Chazelle enriches the material by placing just as much focus on the character development. Mia and Sebastian are rounded, fully dimensional characters. We understand where they’re coming from and the obstacles they face. Subtle dialogue scenes carry just as much emotional heft as the big splashy musical scenes. Mia longs to be an actress, but the constant rejection has put a strain on her to the point where she considers quitting altogether. Sebastian is a talented musician, but his devotion for classical jazz may not get him to a stable place financially. An offer by an old high school classmate (John Legend) might help solve Sebastian’s bills, but it would require him to compromise the kind of music he loves to play.
Justin Hurwitz’s music is lovely, particularly the main piano riff which plays over and over again. This doesn’t become repetitive, as it’s used as a bench marker indicating the different emotional states of the characters. Surprisingly, for all the jazz we hear and all the big dance sequences we see, there isn’t as much singing as I thought there would be. Chazelle keeps the singing to a minimum. Sure, there are some sequences where characters sing, but a lot of the music we get is instrumental. Perhaps this is due to the limitations of his two main actors. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not technical singers, they don’t belt out how much they love each other. In fact, Gosling’s musical voice is pretty mediocre. He has a small range, and most of it is underplayed to the point of being a melodic whisper. While Gosling may not be a great singer, he is a great performer. He makes up for his limitations with strong acting, smooth dancing, and a shocking adeptness at piano playing. I’m not sure if Chazelle used special effects to make Gosling look like a jazz pianist, but on screen he looked amazing on the keys – playing with great passion and enthusiasm.
This is Emma Stone’s movie. There is a story balance between Sebastian and Mia, but Stone is tasked with the larger emotional thread. She hits every gesture perfectly. She generates compassion, humor, and heartbreak with pinpoint accuracy. Stone has a better singing voice than Gosling, and Chazelle capitalizes on that with a climactic solo piece that highlights Stone’s large eyes and expressive face. The scene is a showstopper not because she overwhelms us with a powerful voice, but with a powerful performance. Every tear and movement of her face depicts a feeling that hits us like a ton of bricks. It’s an ability that might catch you off guard. Stone’s early career showcased her quick wit, but here she has stepped up into the big leagues. She’s now a fully realized movie star.
La La Land wraps us up in its good nature and holds us until the credits roll. This is a dazzling, wonderful movie going experience. There is such a strong spirit that it’s hard not to watch it without a big goofy grin on your face. It tells us that chasing your dreams is an effort never wasted, regardless of how hard the road may be. While that may sound a bit hokey and overly sentimental, it’s the exact message we need in times like these.