It’s been a rough year. We lost Bowie. We lost Prince. We may have lost American democracy as we know it. The jury is still out on that one, 2016. Director Damien Chazelle couldn’t get here soon enough with the follow up to his breakout film Whiplash. It’s called La La Land, and it’s everything we need right now. It’s infectiously upbeat, idealistic, heartwarming, and joyous. Basically, it’s everything the world seems to be lacking right now. In addition to being uniquely cinematic, La La Land is the breath giving new life to the big Hollywood musical, a genre that’s best days have been gone for 50 years. What the 2011 surprise hit The Artist did for silent films, La La Land promises to do for musicals. Both films allow Hollywood to indulge in its favorite pastime, looking back to its golden days and reminding itself of its former glory. You’ll notice The Artist didn’t lead to a boom in production of new silent films. Neither is La La Land likely to lead to a major revival of musicals. The most magical thing that both movies do is remind us that the old cliché “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” isn’t exactly true. Sometimes they do, and it’s a rare and special enough occasion, so when it happens, we should count ourselves exceptionally lucky to witness it.
The opening scene of La La Land lets you know immediately how special the movie is. It’s a musical number that unfolds on a Los Angeles highway overpass, and it’s breathtaking. This isn’t Chazelle’s first musical. His feature film debut – which started as his thesis film at Harvard – was 2009’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. The director clearly learned much from making that micro budgeted film and employed that knowledge to make La La Land as big and wondrous as possible. That opening number on the overpass is a prime example. The camera floats effortlessly over and around dozens of dancers who defy gravity (and safety standards) as they glide between the cars stuck in a traffic jam, an L.A. invariable. It’s usually a bad thing to be startled out of the emotional environment of a movie, but when the reason is to ask yourself, “How did they DO that,” it’s a sign that the movie magic is working just as intended.
The plot of La La Land focuses on Mia and Sebastian, two dedicated artists singularly fixated on their craft. Mia is a struggling actress who takes the indignities of auditions with the best attitude she can. Being interrupted during one of those auditions so an assistant can take coffee orders is frustrating, but it’s not as bad as being cut off by the casting director after delivering exactly one line of dialog during her audition, which also happens to poor Mia. When she isn’t trying to catch her big break, she serves coffee at a café on a studio backlot. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who is obsessed with the genre. He dreams of opening a jazz club as a tribute to the greats. Until then, though, Sebastian is forced to play boring Christmas tunes to restaurant patrons who barely even notice him.
The two have a series of meet-cute misfires until the sparks really fly during a spectacular dance sequence set in the Hollywood Hills, overlooking Los Angeles at twilight. In one of a handful of scenes destined to become textbook examples for film students on shooting at magic hour, Mia and Sebastian start their turbulent love affair. The fate of their relationship seems like a simple enough plot line, perhaps too simple, but La La Land has more on its mind than that. The film becomes a meditation on the pursuit of a passion and how sacrifice is part of success. I called the movie joyous, and it certainly is, but that doesn’t stop Chazelle from including a few heart-wrenching plot turns and an ending that is as uplifting as it is bittersweet.
In addition to this celebration of love, both romantic and for the arts, Chazelle has also crafted a love letter to the city where millions have come to make their dreams come true. The locations in and around Los Angeles showcase the very best of the city. It’s not hard to be cynical about the place. After all, for every one aspiring star that actually makes it, there are tens of thousands who leave dejected, made bitter by the lure of success that lies beyond their grasp. It’s easy to envision a future where theater programmers schedule a double bill of La La Land and Mulholland Dr. as an ironic juxtaposition of the light and dark sides of Hollywood. I would be first in line for tickets to that screening, by the way. As easy – and fun – as it is to mock Hollywood for its worst qualities, there is an undeniable satisfaction to giving yourself over to the guileless exuberance of a movie like La La Land. It’s charming.
Much of that charm comes from the two leads. It’s hard to imagine Emma Stone, who plays Mia, ever struggling to become a star in the movies. Stone makes up for that, though, in her performance as a woman on the verge of giving up her dream completely. Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian is quirky and socially awkward, geeky, and completely obsessed with jazz music. At least, as close to awkward and quirky and borderline geeky as a heartthrob like Gosling could ever be. He doesn’t quite have the voice or musical ear to pull off his songs, which is a definite shortcoming of La La Land.
The movie also takes some unbelievable story shortcuts. At one point in the film, Sebastian takes a gig with a touring band to support himself, and Mia comments that Sebastian thinks the leader of the group is “the worst.” We’re never given any concrete reasons for Sebastian’s dislike, outside of being told that it’s so, and that the band leader isn’t as committed to pure jazz as Sebastian is. It also doesn’t help that the character, Keith, is played by real-life musician John Legend, easily one of the most likable and charming personalities currently working in the entertainment business. It’s elements like this that give weight to the potential critique that La La Land is slight when it comes to plot.
For sheer ambition, though, La La Land is a spectacular achievement. From Linus Sandgren’s luscious cinematography (those magic hour shots are a wonder), to Damien Chazelle’s masterful direction, to Mandy Moore’s beautiful choreography, this is a film that restored my understandably flagging faith in humanity.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- Part of the reason I fell so hard for La La Land might be a right place, right time thing. In an era dominated by dark and troubling anti-heroes, the ebullience of this movie is irresistible.
- That's not to say there is no conflict in La La Land. In fact, the last twenty minutes or so have an elegiac quality that give the whole movie a real emotional punch.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I realize I didn't say much about the dancing, and I said practically nothing about the songs in La La Land. To be honest, the songs aren't particularly memorable. That doesn't dampen the overall effect, though.
- Chazelle pulls off a sly wink to the fans of his film Whiplash by casting J.K. Simmons in a bit part as a restaurant owner who hates jazz music.
- I think La La Land has an excellent shot at winning the Best Picture Oscar. To get a bit cynical, Hollywood loves nothing more than to remember its own glorious history, and the musical aspect of La La Land allows it to do just that. The movie is also glowingly white, which, sadly, is usually a big benefit come Oscar voting time. It's also upbeat, which the academy likes. If it becomes a huge financial hit, it has pretty much every base covered for winning the big prize come awards night.