Critically acclaimed musical director Damien Chazelle brings his newest musical masterpiece to the big screen in “La La Land”. In this modern take on the Hollywood musical set in the city of angels, we meet Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a dedicated jazz musician, struggling to make ends meet while pursuing their dreams in a city known for destroying hopes and breaking hearts. With modern day Los Angeles as the backdrop, this musical about everyday life explores what is more important: a once-in-a-lifetime love or the spotlight. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) are drawn together by their common desire to do what they love. But as success mounts they are faced with decisions that begin to fray the fragile fabric of their love affair, and the dreams they worked so hard to maintain in each other threaten to rip them apart. “La La Land” is rated PG-13 for minor adult language.
Damien Chazelle has always had a finer appreciation for music within his films, and his latest is certainly no exception. After modern masterpieces like Whiplash, my favorite film of 2014, as well as Grand Piano, Chazelle crafts stories that revolve around music and never vice versa. So naturally when the chance to orchestrate a modern musical comes to fruition, he is the perfect choice. Musicals haven’t faired so well on the silver screen over the last twenty years, so to release one during Oscar season is certainly a risk that Damien fully believed in. That confidence and vision is clearly evident from the opening scene because La La Land is a visual spectacle of infectious energy that never slows the pulse or excitement from within its audience. Chazelle articulates not only his most ambitious, but also his signature on the very tinsel of the Hollywood spectrum. Make no mistakes about it by the gorgeous backgrounds depicted in the trailers, this is NOT a calling card to the city of angels. Chazelle depicts this place as a city of tortured and broken dreams that step on whoever to preserve that mystique. An aspect that the movie pokes fun at on more than one occasion.
Shot in gorgeous Panovision and technicolor, the very colorful themes popped so vibrantly throughout the concerto of vibrant set pieces and immense landscapes that played as much of a character as our two lovebirds did in the movie. What garners so much re-watching out of something so articulately crafted is that there’s an obvious color symbolism being used here, with blue for Emma Stone’s character, as well as green to represent Ryan Gosling’s. If I were to add my opinion to the already full pot on this debate, I would say the blue represents the emptiness that plagues Stone and her journey to Los Angeles. There’s clearly something missing within her, and that disappointment rings true in fairytale endings not being what they seem. More on that later. With Gosling, the green can mean many things, but I think it’s his jealousy particularly in that of the hipster music scene that has virtually erased the Jazz history from LA. Throughout the movie, Gosling wishes to open his own Jazz club, but finds that the desire for that genre is slim pickens in the city, a theme that radiates throughout his character arc for the entirety of the movie. In addition to this, the technicolor is a callback to past musicals of the 50’s and 60’s that nearly adds a three-dimensional aspect to the beauty. To say this is one of the most beautifully shot movies of the year, would be an understatement. Chazelle’s best work comes in walking the camera where the characters go, and even through some pretty difficult transitional dance sequences, the camera always seems to catch the pulse of that particular musical number.
Speaking of music, my review would be a waste if I didn’t mention the grandeur of Broadway meeting the dream-like atmosphere of Hollywood for a toe-tapping marriage. Every musical number here is totally original, and even Stone and Gosling lend their vocal work to such an offering. What is surprising is how on-key both of them deliver in their emotional release through every song. Holding a note and acting in-sync is a very difficult thing to manage, but both of them omit it effortlessly through the more than twenty musical sequences throughout the movie. Some of my personal favorites were “Someone in the Crowd”, a dress-up whimsical between Stone and friends as she gets ready to meet Mr Right. The personal surefire Oscar pick for me however, is Stone’s “Here’s to the Ones Who Dream”, a majestically haunting storytelling of the fools who fall for the charm of a city famous for crushing dreams. Both of these you can listen to below. The music is welcome to overstay its presence, but Chazelle instead knows how important his characters are to the storytelling, so both methods of exposition are given ample time to never make you yearn the absence of the other.
For two solid hours of a musical/comedy, I was very impressed by how much dramatic depth lied underneath the atmosphere. These are two equal protagonists whose stories are diversely as important to the overall themes of the movie, and Chazelle never falters as a storyteller. This is very much the anatomy of a real relationship in all of its highs and lows. This of course offers a very realistic approach to something so silly and musically accompanied in delivery, and that’s something that most musicals commonly struggle with. The only minor critique I had about the story is that there’s a plot element introduced about thirty minutes into the movie involving Emma Stone’s disposition to not go all the way with Gosling, and it’s kind of introduced and then disposed of within a ten minute arc. Not something that the movie necessarily needed as a dilemma, and I think taking it out wouldn’t have hurt anything creatively. What I do commend the film for is in the ending that feels right at home with the very themes of this desired location. I can see this being a conversation piece among couples who see the movie, but I thought it played life very real and pure from an engaging point of view.
Stone and Gosling also radiate pure chemistry off of their timeless delivery and modern approaches to a forgotten era of cinema. This is a coming out party in particularly to that of Stone, offering a fresh take on her every-girl persona that is so easy to fall in love with. There’s a great pain to Stone’s Mia, and that empathy registering in all of our stomachs for her character feels prominent through everything she goes through. As I’m sure, everyone who knows me knows I’m a pure Emma-enthusiast, so it should come as no surprise how delightful she was in this movie. What might shock you however, is that I don’t consider Stone a very versatile actress in terms of delivery. That was however until La La Land. This is very much her shining moment to join Hollywood’s elite, an echoing effect that transcribes art imitating life. Gosling is a noble gentlemen straight out of the 60’s, and leading men like Bogart and Gable would clap aloud for Ryan’s gentle touch. His character goes through a transformation of sorts midway through, but it never changes what we indulged about his performance in the first place; endless heart and charisma that prove he’s more than a handsome face. The success of this couple is easy to get behind because we understand through life’s muddy waters how important this brief moment of happiness can be for the other person involved. They very much serve as the inspiration to the other one, and while this isn’t an original take for film, it is one that works every time with two actors as engulfed in chemistry as they are. This is Stone and Gosling’s third movie together, and it’s clear that they are both at their peak when they stand across from the other. Chazelle paints them a beautiful canvas, then lets the actors remind the audience why we’re here in the first place; for a look into two crazy kids who bleed emotion for each other.
If everything I have mentioned above hasn’t encouraged you to see Damien Chazelle’s modern masterpiece, then take with you one final critical praise. La La Land sways to the serenade of an Oscar worthy musical score, while treading along to the beat of life’s many switching lanes. It’s an ambitiously infectious shooting star that transforms Hollywood to a much simpler time of filmmaking. Chazelle’s wizardry doesn’t require a wand, he does just fine with a camera.