A gorgeous love letter to Hollywood and the dreams that keep the industry alive, “La La Land” is escapism at its finest.
If there is one thing that defined the early years of Hollywood, it would be the movie musical. After the advent of sound technology, film studios embraced the new development to produce some of history’s most acclaimed musicals, including “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “An American in Paris” and “42nd Street.”
Now, in the 21st century, director Damien Chazelle has crafted a new film that can be added to the list. “La La Land” is more than just another musical. Chazelle’s film modernizes the genre while, with its sweeping musical numbers and breathtaking final sequence, keeps in line with its roots. It is a gorgeous love letter to Hollywood, Los Angeles and the dreams that keep the industry alive. Effervescent and engrossing, “La La Land” is escapism at its finest.
The film begins on a vast highway of deadlocked traffic, as a young woman in a bright yellow dress breaks out into song. The camera swings through the organized chaos of the dance number as drivers and passengers jubilate and twirl across the screen. Colors shine amid the frenzy, with stark reds, blues and yellows weaving a bright tapestry of visual splendor.
As the cast sings “Another Day of Sun,” the first of many fantastic musical pieces in the film, “La La Land” telegraphs what is to come. It draws viewers into this escapist world of song and light while showing the dichotomy of the city itself. Even these drivers, amidst crammed unmoving cars, see the potential for beauty and success in the City of Stars. In essence, that’s what the film is about.
This is only Chazelle’s second feature, and it showcases his personal style and ideals. His first film, 2014’s “Whiplash,” became a quick critical darling and, in this reviewer’s opinion, was the best film that year. An intimate flick involving a young drummer and the constant struggle to better oneself, “Whiplash” cemented Chazelle as a lover of jazz, the lives of artists and the language of cinema.
“La La Land” doubles down on those concepts, beginning with the existential conflict of the artist’s dilemma. At its core, the film is both a tale of love between two struggling artists and how dreams are meant to be chased, even amid constant setbacks.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) are the living embodiment of the Hollywood dream, but not entirely in the sense one would expect. Unlike the quick success expected among the Los Angeles crowd, the two keep failing in their own right. To put it simply, they’re relatably human.
Sebastian is a self-taught jazz pianist who is stuck playing simple songs as a restaurant musician, and Mia is just another ambitious actress amidst a sea of seemingly identical actresses. Both have dreams they strive to realize, with Sebastian hoping to open his own jazz cafe and bring jazz back into the forefront, while Mia wishes to act on the big screen. Yet, dreams are often easier said than done, even for people with incredible talent.
Their struggles and eventual romance are enchanting and relatable, acting as a surprisingly unglamorous backbone to a story many would associate with fame and celebrity. They fail like us, try like us and change like us. “La La Land” tells a story of real people and how their lives can come together and just as easily fall apart.
Shedding the clichés of films like “The Notebook,” Gosling has come into his own lately with stellar roles in “Drive,” “Blue Valentine” and “Place Beyond the Pines.” Here, however, he falls back to his romance roots while proving his development over the years. Perhaps his acting is a little predictable at times, but he displays great aptitude for grounding what could have been a cheesy and insufferable role.
Emma Stone, on the other hand, turns in one of her finest performances to date, which has been recognized by everything from the Golden Globes to the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Stone is constantly evocative and dynamic, yet she channels a sort of blissful simplicity that feels both fresh and wholly nostalgic.
The only problem with “La La Land” involves its supporting cast. Keith (John Legend) is the only side character who is even close to developed, with everyone else serving as either one-off plot devices or extra flair in the background.
That said, “La La Land” doesn’t try to tell us the story of a community, but of two people, and that is more than enough.
“La La Land” is proving itself with a record 14 Oscar nominations – a feat accomplished only by “Titanic” and “All About Eve” – but not just for acting and plot. This production was made for people who love films. From visuals down to music, the film oozes style.
Cinematographer Linus Sandgren delivers the best work of his career in “La La Land.” The color work is astounding, with splashes of light and hues bouncing off one another in every way imaginable. Several sequences take on a more stage-musical style, as Sebastian and Mia dance and sing in front of vast painted backdrops and emotive dance ensembles. Every shot pops off of the screen.
Of course, visuals aren’t enough for this kind of film. Musicals live and die by their music, and composer Justin Hurwitz delivers. Hurwitz previously partnered with Chazelle on “Whiplash,” bringing classic jazz back into the forefront of cinema. Here, that style is expanded and improved, blending the trademarks of musicals and even a bit of pop sentimentality. Trumpets blare, drums crack and the audience is sent through a renaissance of improvisational jazz compositions.
The most important distinction “La La Land” deserves comes from Chazelle’s flawless balancing act between realism and escapism. While breaking out into song and dancing through clouds is rarely associated with realism, the film feels like it exists in our world. The set pieces and extensive montages give a luminous and fantasy-laden look into the minds of Mia and Sebastian. It’s a modern musical through and through, set in an era of smartphones and electric cars, which it handles by being both grounded and eclectic.
Chazelle’s film is more than just one of the best movies of the year; it’s the beginning of something fresh. “La La Land” is not just a modernization of the movie musical, but a modernization of the love story itself. It’s a fantastic and relatable tale of the volatility of human life and love, and the ability for one’s passions and ambitions to shape them. With its masterful approach to music and visual language, “La La Land” is a film for the ages.