La La Land makes for Damien Chazelle’s most technically-accomplished love letter to music yet, as well as the filmmaker’s most poignant work.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who works as a barista on the Warner Bros. studio lot, in-between attending whatever film and TV show auditions are made available to her. Over a series of months, Mia has multiple encounters – some more awkward than others – with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who yearns to open a jazz club of his own, but mostly spends his days barely making ends meet, working one-off gigs. The pair gradually begin to form a relationship as they connect with one another over their passions and dreams, proving to be kindred spirits despite their initial differences.
Before long, Mia and Sebastian have properly fallen in love and begin living a life together, even as they continue to pursue the dreams that brought them to Los Angeles in the first place. However, as the pair experience mixed success and disheartening failure alike in their efforts to reach for the stars, they begin to wonder if what they’re really chasing are just pipe dreams – and if that includes a future where they’re still together.
The third feature-length directorial effort from writer/director Damien Chazelle, La La Land carries over the musical genre throwback elements of Chazelle’s debut film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and combines them with the dynamic filmmaking techniques from his drama/thriller Whiplash – further exploring those movies’ shared themes about the nature of jazz music and the realities of what it takes to pursue a career in the performing arts. La La Land is also more of an unabashed homage to old-fashioned Hollywood musicals that peaked in popularity around the mid-20th century than Guy and Madeline; the film is similarly more bittersweet when it comes to examining how people’s paths can take them in unexpected directions, compared to Whiplash‘s darker outlook towards the subject. In turn, La La Land makes for Damien Chazelle’s most technically-accomplished love letter to music yet, as well as the filmmaker’s most poignant work.
La La Land succeeds from the get-go (with its old-fashioned titles and show-stopping opening musical number, “Another Day of Sun”) at establishing its setting as a heightened version of modern Los Angeles – one that’s brought to life through the lively camerawork and rich color palette embraced by Chazelle and cinematographer Lindus Sandgren (American Hustle). The film avoids being excessively nostalgic in the way it recreates the style and atmosphere of the Hollywood musicals that inspired it by integrating modern technological conveniences and the realities of life in the real-world version of La La Land/LA today (traffic jams, expensive housing) into the proceedings – often intruding upon song and dance numbers, in order to bring them back down to the “real world”. This also gives the film an interesting thematic throughline about the difficulties of finding a balance between preserving/revering the past and keeping up in a constantly changing world.
La La Land‘s exploration of tradition vs. innovation extends to its narrative structure – one that adheres to the form of a Gene Kelly musical in particular, yet manages to subvert certain plot/character tropes commonly associated with the type of (musical) love story being told here. Chazelle similarly avoids making La La Land come off as a kitschy salute to old-fashioned musicals by carefully handling the film’s tonal shifts from scene to scene. This allows La La Land to smoothly transition from overtly satirical scenes (taking digs at the current state of Hollywood) to sequences that are wide-eyed romantic and/or even quietly heartbreaking (especially in the third act), inbetween enchanting musical sequence that boast great choreography from Mandy Moore and songs written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
Helping to sell the film’s love story are Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, whose chemistry is strong as ever in La La Land – following their work together on the rom-com Crazy, Stupid, Love and the period crime drama Gangster Squad. Both actors impress with their singing and dancing abilities (and, in Gosling’s case, piano playing), allowing Chazelle to further showcase their talents through the frequent use of extended takes and long shots. Stone is the standout of the pair; delivering an emotionally rich performance (as a wannabe star) that’s full of charm and vulnerability, whether she is singing her heart out or just making small talk. Gosling’s character – a jazz aficionado who somewhat fancies himself to be a potential savior of the art form – is less compelling and has more of a conventional arc by comparison, but Gosling’s performance is strong enough to compensate for these (slight) shortcomings.
La La Land is first and foremost the Gosling and Stone show, though the film’s supporting cast is peppered with great character actors who pop up for a memorable scene or two – among them, Chazelle’s Oscar-winning Whiplash actor J.K. Simmons as Sebastian’s (sorta) boss, as well as Rosemarie DeWitt as Sebastian’s sister Laura. John Legend also does fine work in a key supporting turn as Keith, Sebastian’s old acquaintance and fellow musician, while Los Angeles itself is portrayed as a hotbed of diversity (as it should be). Every song/dance number in the film is full to the brim with talented performers too, thus further ensuring that these musical sequences are unanimously entertaining to behold – whether you stay focused on what’s happening in the foreground or let your eyes drift to the background, throughout them.
Anchored by the two great performances from its leads, terrific musical numbers and stylish direction, La La Land is a proper crowd-pleaser and a heartfelt salute to old Hollywood that harkens back to the past in order to create something fresh and exciting – rather than wax nostalgic about history. Those who have seen Whiplash in particular may be all the more surprised by how Chazelle uses similar filmmaking techniques on La La Land, but to very different effect and context. This suggests that the film’s director, similar to La La Land itself, has a strong handle on how to keep one foot in the past, while still looking ahead and moving into the future. Our recommendation: go ahead and take the trip to Chazelle’s version of the City of Stars.
La La Land is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 128 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for some language.
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