If I could somehow transport myself into a film and live the rest of my days in it, I feel that movie would no doubt be La La Land. My immediate instinct is to just type that over and over again, and that is without even taking into account the current sociopolitical climate. Watching La La Land is like getting a shot of adrenaline in pure cinematic form. It’s the kind of film that cradles you with pure joy and leaves you feeling better. It’s a healer, an earnest ode to all the broken hearts and starving artists. It glides and sweeps in a technicolor frenzy that manages to be both electric and utterly magical; building moment after moment to a climax that is – simply put – the kind of stuff that cinema was made for.
Writer/director, Damien Chazelle, creates a strong impression literally from the first frame as he starts the picture off with a sequence in an LA traffic jam to the song “Another Day of Sun.” It’s an amazingly show-offy sequence done in a single take as it sweeps over multiple people, multiple cars, people dancing over several lanes, before finally resting the camera in order capture the meet cute between our main characters – Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) and Mia Dolan (Emma Stone). I say show-offy, but I mean it in the best way possible, it’s a visually ambitious and thoroughly complex sequence, but there is a wonder and awe to its presentation. Unlike other directors that I have criticized for being pompous and purposeless in their presentation (cough, Iñárritu, cough), Chazelle uses his skills to create a sense of drive and energy, to throw you into his vision of the city of angels. Even at its most extravagant, there is always purpose.
As proven with Whiplash, Chazelle is a master when it comes to his technical artistry. Every shot, every cut, every piece of the production is meticulously crafted and delivered with a particular energy that is visceral in ways most films that try to be aren’t. At the same time, he understands when to hold back, when to allow the mood to settle in. This is where his use of color really shines, as it drenches in each and every scene with a varied and vivid palette. It’s truly a sight to behold, and it easily makes for one of the most gorgeous films I’ve seen in a long time.
La La Land is also a celebration of the city of Los Angeles, its people and its culture. As someone who recently moved to the city, it isn’t hard to notice the reverence and love that Chazelle has for the city, even if his take on the city is basically an idealized version, but that is part of the point. It finds the soul in the hustle of everyday people trying to achieve their dreams. It’s genuinely inspiring, even in moments that will break your heart.
Now, I was not a fan of Whiplash. I thought it was brilliantly crafted, but terribly shallow. And not only was it shallow, but it advocated (whether intentional or not) a very toxic relationship between art and artist, and it ended before it could even so much as touch on the consequences of the abuse and toxicity that the film revels in. La La Land doesn’t shy away from the struggle of what people have to go through to achieve their dreams and the compromises that they often have to make, but it celebrates the relationship between the art and the artist, and argues that it is something worth fighting for.
The film is also a treat for lovers of both film and music. There are multiple nods and homages to the likes of Jacques Demy and the old MGM musicals. And Chazelle brings his love of jazz back in Sebastian, who wants to start his own jazz club in the city. The film most definitely wears its influences on its sleeve, but not to the point where it would alienate those who have yet to experience the art that it constantly pulls from. And like with the many wonderful choices in filmmaking, the references are also made with purpose and conviction. It isn’t calling out to something for the sake of empty, surface level nostalgia, it actually informs our characters and the overall atmosphere that Chazelle is going for.
Gosling and Stone are just exquisite on screen. It’s their third film together, and their chemistry is infectious and immediately lovable. For a film so willing to go big and bold, the most affecting of moments come from the small touches and the slightest looks that these two give each other. There’s a rawness to their performances, even with their vocal work, which isn’t perfect, but it uses that imperfection to its advantage. It allows the film to open up with such intimacy and emotional honesty, it makes the film a totally profound experience.
Every now and then you’ll see a new musical hit theaters, but it never really catches on and hold staying power. I think La La Land might change that. I don’t know if it will usher in a new trend of Hollywood musicals, but this is one that I think people will talk about for years. It’s a work of art that celebrates art and those who pursue it. It does falter a bit toward the middle, especially in the scenes involving Keith (John Legend), an old acquaintance of Sebastian who invites him to play in his band. It feels so weirdly disconnected from the whole thing and doesn’t work as strongly as the rest of the film. However, despite that, the film is absolutely astonishing. It’s a bold, visionary, and endlessly delightful experience that is deeply rooted in a confident and superlative understanding of cinematic language. It’s easy to say something like “they don’t make movies like this anymore,” but the honest to God truth is that, despite the obvious influences, it really is a one of a kind masterwork. Oh, and the songs are pretty great, too. I think I forgot to mention that. 95/100