A film review by Craig J. Koban January 7, 2017

RANK:  #2


2016, PG-13, 126 mins.


Ryan Gosling as Sebastian  /  Emma Stone as Mia  /  Rosemarie DeWitt as Laura  /  J.K. Simmons as Bill  /  John Legend as Keith

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle

Labeling LA LA LAND as just a musical would be woefully simplistic.  

Yes, it's a musical that's a loving ode to the classic Technicolor musicals of the Golden Age of the genre, to be fair.  However, it's also a heartfelt tribute to the movies themselves, young love, the city of Los Angeles, jazz music, and the perseverance and determination of intrepid artistic minds to see their hopes and dreams through to successful fruition when faced with overwhelming odds.  

If anything, LA LA LAND wears its influences proudly and confidently, and it's a wondrously entertaining movie from Damien Chazelle, the superlative 31-year-old writer/director of the startling effective WHIPLASH (also musically themed).  There have been innumerable attempts made by intrepid filmmakers to recapture old Hollywood glamour for modern day consumption...and this is one of the most masterfully conceived and executed. 

The film establishes its infectiously jubilant tone right from the get-go in a bravura opening sequence, done with ingeniously engineered long takes and painstaking camera pans showcasing hundreds of L.A. commuters - all stuck in a massive traffic jam - as they shake away the misery of their current situation through song and dance.  The sounds of the idling engines, honking horns, radio music, and eventual sung lyrics by the citizens creates a rich homogenized sonic environment to get categorically lost in; it's one of the most sensationally realized openings for any musical of recent memory.  It's also during this sequence when LA LA LAND's two lead characters lock eyes and meet for the first time, albeit under stressful and less than ideal circumstances (one angrily flips the other the bird in a brief instance of mild road rage). 



One of them is Mia (an astoundingly effective Emma Stone), an aspiring actress that works a lowly job as a barista while struggling though one audition after another in a desperate attempt to get noticed.  Even though she's plucky, headstrong, and determined, she's nevertheless dogged by constant professional rejection.  The other is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, radiating suave charisma), a jazz musician that too is struggling for occupational legitimacy.  He's richly talented and dedicated to his craft, but his unwillingness to modernize his music has hurt him from achieving gainful employment.  Of course, these two lost souls reunite after their brief exchange on that aforementioned freeway.  Their initial friendship blossoms into romantic love and, in many ways, this is further manifested in their mutual support of the other to achieve their artistic goals.  Complications, as they always do, rear their ugly heads and puts a damper on their respective happiness with one another. 

LA LA LAND is a pure audio-visual technical marvel to experience.  The city of L.A., in its own major way, becomes a third main character for Chazelle here, and the film's sun drenched panoramic vistas make the City of Angels look positively gorgeous.  The lush and vibrant color palette is boldly evocative and does the story great service (Chazelle opens up the film with an old school logo that proudly proclaims that the film was shot in CinemaScope...something that feels legitimate and not like a wink-wink stylistic gimmick).  The heavily romanticized look and feel of LA LA LAND's environments is refreshing, especially during our current cinematic age where dark cynicism taints far too many films.  There are many individual moments - all beautifully choreographed and sustained - that shows just how well Chazelle and company have studied the classic musicals of old that served as obvious influences.  In many respects, LA LA LAND feels like it was made decades ago during the heyday of the big screen musical, but very much maintains a contemporary vibe...a tricky dichotomy that, no doubt, was enormously difficult to achieve here. 

The musical numbers themselves are effervescently joyous to watch, all of which manage to celebrate not only the endless dreamlike aura of L.A., but also the story's two souls - unlucky in their art, but lucky in love - that have found kinship amidst their hardships.  One sequence in particular is serenely poetic, as Sebastian takes Mia out to see REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, which she has never seen.  The screening suffers from projection issues, which leaves Sebastian thinking on his feet and taking Mia on an impromptu visit to the Griffith Observatory (a key landmark that also figured heavily in the iconic James Dean film).  As the scene reaches a breathtaking crescendo we witness Mia and Sebastian literally float in the air and dance around the multiple exhibits that surround them.  Consciously, I was aware that these actors were suspended on wires, but subconsciously it felt magically; the illusion was swiftly immediate. 

Musicals, of course, live and breathe on the magnetic charms of their stars, and LA LA LAND is always in resoundingly assured form with the innately agreeable pairing of Gosling and Stone, both of whom have played lovers twice before in CRAZY STUPID LOVE and GANGSTER SQUAD.  There is no other on screen couple in a film from 2016 - or perhaps any recent year, for that matter - that has their instant chemistry; you rarely, if ever, doubt any moment that they occupy the screen together.  Gosling has a smooth as silk vocal range as a singer that matches his flawlessly chiseled mug, but it's perhaps Stone that that deserves a lion's share of the credit for fully emerging here in her most fleshed out and complete performance of her career.  Not only can she match her co-star as an accomplished singer, but there's also the manner that she dials into Mia's emotional fragility and melancholy that makes LA LA LAND all the more dramatically potent.  And, holy hell, can Stone and Gosling ever dance as well, which is highlighted during one superb early scene that would make Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire blush with envy. 

If LA LA LAND were to have any faults then it would certainly be in its narrative trajectory for these characters, which does take some obligatory paths (you just know that one will achieve success with the other still ravenously clamoring for it, thusly creating a wedge between them).  Chazelle also seems to lose the show stopping momentum he generated early on in the film, and there are some dry spots here and there when LA LA LAND forgets that it's...well...a musical.  Yet, the whole unfolding of Mia and Sebastian's story arc is anything but trite and conventional in the manner that Chazelle miraculously crafts an ending that is able to be both heartbreakingly sad and satisfyingly uplifting at the same time.  Without given much away, he gives us one ending - drenched in regret and sorrow - and then abruptly gives us an alternate climax that shows how things could have been for its starry eyed lovers.  I love it when films like this take gutsy challenges in subverting audience expectations, and Chazelle shows great respect for his viewers in his uniquely handled, but surprisingly powerful denouement. 

Watching LA LA LAND made me think of the greatest examples of the silver screen musical genre, but Chazelle isn't obsessed with outright mimicking them here.  Some films, like, say, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS played the nostalgia card so aggressively that it all but appropriated the basic storyline of the film it was paying massive homage to.  Chazelle achieves something far more satisfyingly nuanced with LA LA LAND.  He's paying the utmost respect to landmark musicals without lazily rehashing their familiar plot beats and conceits.  LA LA LAND is bathed in marvelous nostalgia, but it's not slavish to it.  It's a painstakingly crafted musical that triumphantly stands proudly its own two feet while paying respect to the lineage of past genre examples.  That's what ultimately makes LA LA LAND feel simultaneously and revitalizingly novel and familiar at the same time.  That, and resurrecting a relatively dead genre like this is no easy feat, which makes Chazelle's achievement here all the more remarkable.  

LA LA LAND is a film that loves music, movies, dreamers, and romance...and it's slyly self aware without coming off as arrogantly so.  Leaving the screening I found it hard to wipe the smile off of my face.  Not too many modern films cast such a euphoric glow over me...but this one did.  


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