La La Land (2016)
Release Date: December 16th, 2016 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Damien Chazelle Actors: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, John Legend, Finn Wittrock
usicals grace the big screen so infrequently that it’s difficult not to be wowed by the brilliance and daring of Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land.” A closer examination reveals heavy influences and borrowed plot elements from the best of the ’30s and ’40s, but Chazelle’s sophomore effort takes on a life of its own thanks to the infusion of numerous musical and visual styles. Jazz features prominently but electronic modernizations appear too, as do moments of tap dancing amongst hip-hop and ballroom choreography. At its core, “La La Land” keeps the message of chasing dreams fairly simple, but the fluid and ever-changing progression of musical sequences, complemented by a memorable recurring romance tune, easily sweeps the audience into the whirlwind of emotions that accompany the two leads’ journey in and out of love through one magical year in Los Angeles.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a talented pianist and jazz enthusiast who dreams of opening his own club. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress and playwright with her sights set on making it big in Hollywood. The two are brought together by chance encounters, which find them quickly falling in love, prompting her to encourage him to chase his passion – as he demands no less from her. But vocational prosperity welcomes them each at different times, causing their individual successes and achievements to begin pulling the couple apart.
It’s arresting at the start, when a traffic jam becomes a full-blown song-and-dance sequence that mimics more contemporary musicals like “Grease” or “Hairspray,” but with an edge of tricky editing to resemble a continuous, uninterrupted shot that sweeps back and forth across a highway ramp. It’s also incredibly upbeat, colorful, and energetic. Perhaps on purpose, but potentially at the mercy of arranging the storyline, the musical elements of “La La Land” begin to dwindle the longer the picture plays, until the resounding finale, which could mirror the majesty of “An American in Paris” (though on a smaller scale). It’s as if the music subsides in correspondence with ebbing love.
Nearly everything about “La La Land” tips its hat to a classical style of movie musical – from the swing/big band melodies of nightclub shimmying to the tap-dancing numbers that crop up on isolated, scenic parkways. The style is old-fashioned and glamorous, yet curiously integrated into the modernity of iPhones and Prius hybrids (or, technically, Prii). It’s a wonderful blend of typically incompatible components, but it’s also an opportunity for director Damien Chazelle to risk manufacturing a project that would seem unlikely – if not impossible – to market in 2016. With its camera movements, choreography, and editing – which all take advantage of the medium – it’s a rare, highly original endeavor that looks and sounds as good as its emotionally crushing yet simultaneously hopeful premise.
And, if it weren’t for the ending, that premise might have been rather ordinary. In terms of developing a story, “La La Land” embarks on that overused Hollywood theme of pursuing dreams and contending with failure, topped off with two people who should definitely be together regularly fighting to stay apart. Unfulfilling jobs, sudden successes, grand aspirations, and all of the harsh realities of show business collide with the romanticized fantasy of love. Traditionalism clashes with progressivism and quarreling at a dinner table counters floating into the stars of an observatory; the lenient rules of a musical allow “La La Land” to exist on multiple levels of reality, further augmented by a rearranged and converging timeline.
The gamble in making the film might have leaned toward an outcome as basic as recreating an oft-forgotten or dying form of craftsmanship (like 2011’s “The Artist”), but the way in which the conclusion presents striving for an individual vision versus sacrificing identity for momentary prosperity is poignant and powerful, particularly as it becomes incompatible with romantic happiness. Like “Casablanca” or “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” the sense of satisfaction is undeniable, even if not everything goes according to cupid’s plan. Here, it’s dually a celebration of music and magic, where swelling emotions are captured by somber yet jazzy leitmotifs.
– The Massie Twins