La La Land (2016)

Written & Directed by Damien Chazelle

What Damien Chazelle was able to accomplish with Whiplash is nothing short of astounding. He took a small idea and turned it into a smash hit. And while it may not have made truckloads of money at the box office, it also didn’t take much money to make. It made Miles Teller a star, and Damien Chazelle a filmmaker to watch. But perhaps more amazing, it made jazz music exciting and relevant in ways most people in this day and age would have never imagined. Chazelle is clearly passionate about music, and the genre in particular, as he has been able to springboard his success with Whiplash into the Hollywood throwback movie La La Land, which features big name stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, jazz music, and a film genre and style that has been more and more rare these days. a joyous musical.

After an impromptu song and dance scene on a crowded Los Angeles freeway, we meet Mia (Emma Stone), who is an aspiring actress who works on the studio lots at a coffee shop, serving the stars. We also meet Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist who can’t keep a regular gig due to his penchant for playing freestyle jazz instead of sticking to the requested set lists. At first, the two are mismatched, misunderstanding the other’s dreams, unsure of why they don’t pursue them harder. But soon the couple begins to fall in love, and things begin to look up for each on the professional front, a promising audition and a steady gig in a band. But when success comes, strife begins, and they must reconsider what their dreams truly are, and what they really mean to themselves and to each other.

La La Land is a movie which I have been anticipating ever since I heard about it. With such an impressive writer/director in Damien Chazelle behind it, and a great cast, it sounded like a match made in heaven. Chazelle’s ambition to recreate the golden era of Hollywood, when triple threats and musicals were among the most popular stars and movies, brings the screen back to life with such verve and joy. True musicals are very few and far between these days, and those that do exist are often showcased with a modern twist. Here Chazelle holds nothing back as characters will randomly break out in song and dance. The realistic consequences of these circumstances be damned, these characters are joyously proclaiming their feelings, and their performances are infectious in that regard. Chazelle has captured lightning in a bottle once again.

Since La La Land‘s approach is so unique, so different from the current cinematic landscape, it is hard to determine whether I loved the film for being different, for bringing back a genre I love, or whether I truly loved it for its merit of execution. To be honest, I think it’s a little bit of both. There are moments of true joy, or soaring happiness which Chazelle sprinkles throughout this film which make it one of the best times at the movies all year. There is an aura of surreal, of magic in the air which so clearly hearkens back to a different time in Hollywood, a different time in popular music. But there are also moments where the film feels stale, or well-trodden in its narrative routes, which make it feel like just another story about a romance. As a result, La La Land becomes this creative amalgamation of meta references, heart felt storytelling, and derivative landscapes, both narratively and stylistically.

For being able to bring back a straightforward musical, Chazelle should be applauded, and La La Land is truly one of the best experiences I’ve had all year with the movies. It’s a terrific journey through the story of Mia and Sebastian, and the ending raises thematic questions that make it a little more beguiling than it often lets on. Stone and Gosling are terrific, but the question remains what will this film’s audience be? Will a musical like this be well received in popular terms? Like good jazz music, good musicals can be hard to find and fade to the background of pop culture because some of the more popular ones (Kenny G, High School Musical) overshadow the truly breathtaking and impressive traits of each. I hope people will seek out La La Land. I also hope people come into it with an open mind, because otherwise some of the rather surreal and soaring moments of happiness may simply come off as bonkers. I like that they’re bonkers.

***1/2 – Great

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