Film Review: 'La La Land'
It's a movie that's like living a dream, or like falling in love. It moves the soul like it's a force of nature. And there's just something about a great movie musical that has viewers leaving the theater like they're dancing on sunshine, instantaneously inspired to dream big.
Nothing just below greatness can achieve that. And La La Land far surpasses that benchmark by being an incredible work of art, and from purveyors of art to casual moviegoers, it's an experience that absolutely cannot be missed.
Director Damien Chazelle, who previously led the way in 2014’s incredible Whiplash, reaches a new potential by making this romantic symphony of color, song and dance into an instant classic; an otherworldly experience that would make any lead actor in it an overnight star. But with the already-established Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling - who are an absolutely magnetic pair - La La Land may not be career-starting, but it is most definitely career-defining. And yes, Gosling's show here can even rival his turn in The Notebook (unbelievable as that may sound).
The unbelievability is appropriate here; La La Land kicks things off with a sunny and upbeat dance routine set in the midst of a Los Angeles traffic jam, complete with acrobatics and twirls on top of cars. It's immediately apparent that Chazelle has written a love letter to the long-gone era of movie musicals, back in the days when Gene Kelley and Debbie Reynolds ruled the silver screen. For the older generation, La La Land is nostalgic and familiar; for the younger generation, new, modern, accessible; for both, profoundly moving and endlessly heartwarming.
This musical fireworks show resonates especially well with modern times in that its wonderful opening sequence plays right into a love story of two starry-eyed could-be's: an aspiring young actress, Mia (Stone), and a down-on-his-luck jazz-piano musician, Sebastian (Gosling). Respectively struggling to make ends meet, they've already moved all-in on becoming success stories in a city of countless hopes and dreams. When they give their everything - to the city and to each other - the movie gives you its everything. In return, you end up giving the movie your everything as it seizes your attention, heart, and soul. It's a true testament to just how powerful film is.
Although you wouldn't think that at first about our heartthrob couple; in the city of angels, passion runs hot both ways. Their first few encounters are harsh and humorous: Sebastian flips Mia the bird in the aforementioned traffic jam; and Mia, after having her Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Love Theme moment by witnessing Sebastian at work in a jazz bar, gets a cold shoulder check as he stomps out the door. Chazelle, who also wrote the script, has perfectly captured that indelible charm about Los Angeles, with all of its perfections and imperfections. It's a film that's all about expanding the imagination, while also maintaining a light grounding in some reality when it's at its most effective.
It's an angle you wouldn't expect a romantic movie musical to take, and it's for that reason that La La Land feels just as modern as it does nostalgic. Mia and her roommates sing about working hard and playing hard in a feel-good, pick-up-your-spirits tune to wash down the endless rejections at countless auditions. When Mia and Sebastian give into their love for one another, their dance numbers - especially the one that graces the film's poster - are equally colorful and sweeping. The choreography is also a sight to see, as it channels the very fervor of falling deeply and unremittingly in love.
But what about the bills to pay and the room to stay, and where's that next gig going to come from? What about compromising on the dream job, about settling down and making a living? About running away from it all? With Mia and Sebastian as our guides, La La Land defiantly proclaims: "the future be damned, as long as I'm spending it with you, my darling."
As that all might hint at, journeys of all kinds (especially those of love) never travel in a straight line. And so Sebastian and Mia, as they make their way through mind-blowing dance numbers and instantly classic tunes, have their fair share of resolve-testing obstacles and setbacks. Taken straight from the tagline of The Notebook, "behind every great love is a great story." And that’s undoubtedly true here for La La Land, a point that Gosling, Stone, and Chazelle purvey with colorful direction and trademark performances.
Of course, this is a musical, and the soundtrack to La La Land has already provided some tunes that will sear themselves into the minds and hearts of every moviegoer, and find their way being whistled out of many sets of lips. Chief among them: the piano-laden "City of Stars" a duet show between Mia and Sebastian composed by an immensely talented Justin Hurwitz. It's a gentle, yet resonant song that could light a fire.
The entire score of the movie strikes that perfect chord of timelessness without being too over-the-top or sentimental. Its notes and melodies are rhythmic and catchy, and its lyrics are affectionately simple, never once spilling over into the overt and absurd. It's not just entrancing, but a hell of a lot of fun as well, and the music of La La Land inspires hand-holding as much as it does foot-tapping. And with eye-catching choreography beautifully executed by Gosling, Stone, and multiple supporting cast members throughout, this film is a profound marriage of sight and sound. That's not just a goal for every movie musical, but for all of cinema.
Because of that, La La Land, in the highest regard, is what cinema is all about: escaping to a world beyond the one we occupy and into one where truly anything is possible. Yet, refreshingly, even the hard times are welcome; it feels more real, more visceral to where it tugs at just the right heartstrings at all the perfect times. This film is a colorful representation of life, with all of its peaks and troughs, everything either wondrously new or lovingly familiar. It's everything there is to love about a movie.
La La Land is already classic. Watch it, and feel that feeling of falling in love for the first time all over again. And dream big while you're at it.
Rated PG-13. 128 minutes.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle.
Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.