La La Land

 photo la_la_land_ver3_zpssdnqlcs6.jpg photo starrating-5stars.jpgI want to live in Los Angeles. Not the real LA mind you, but the glittering jewel of a city in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. The city often gets a bad rap. There are the oft-mentioned reasons: smog, extreme traffic, insufficient public transportation, crime, gangs, the pseudo-spiritualism, the unchecked vanity, the obsession with celebrities. It kind of seems like everyone is trying to make it into show business there. Easier said than done.  It wasn’t nicknamed the city of broken dreams for nothing. And yet millions choose to call LA home. La La Land makes me understand why.

The city isn’t famous for its culture. Yet Chazelle sees the beauty within. La La Land is a practically a tourism ad making use of many real Los Angeles landmarks. It’s only a matter of time before the Hollywood location tour pops up. There‘s Griffith Park, the Observatory there, Angels Flight Funicular, Colorado Street Bridge, the Rialto theater, Hermosa Beach Pier. The “You Are the Star” Mural at Hollywood & Wilcox provides a backdrop. Each location becomes an enchanting setting. Anyone who has ever found themselves in LA’s nightmarish bumper to bumper gridlock would beg to differ. However, even a traffic jam seems like a wondrous delight. In the film’s opening scene, Chazelle makes congestion on the 110-105 interchange exactly that. Again I emphasize that this is not a set and the experience is all the more galvanizing because of it. As the characters slowly emerge from the protective confines of their metals cells, they begin to sing “Another Day of Sun”. Gradually getting on top of their cars in a rapturous display of dancing by choreographer Mandy Moore (not the pop singer turned actress). It’s a fantastic way to start off the picture. It’s so captivating, I was overcome with emotion. The way it harnesses joy out of the everyday is magical.

First and foremost, La la Land is a love story. Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) pursue each other. They’ve got palpable chemistry. This is actually the third time the two have been on screen together Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad were the others. Emma Stone is such a pleasure. As the jittery aspiring actress waiting for her big break, she is an anxious bundle of charm. Ryan Gosling plays a confident but frustrated jazz pianist. He dreams of opening his own club but earns a living by playing Xmas songs in a cocktail bar. Deep down he prefers the traditions of the past while being forced to adopt the affectations of the modern era. John Legend is his friend Keith that looks to the future. “Jazz is constantly evolving,” Keith argues. Neither side is wrong according to the film. It’s not being true to yourself that’s the problem. Mia supports this idea. Sebastian accepts a well-paying job playing backup electronic keyboards for Keith’s commercially successful band. “Did you like it?” Sebastian asks of Mia after a very well-attended concert of jazz-pop fusion. “Yes, but did you?” she responds.

They’re a pair out of some long lost Hollywood musical of the 1950s. In a previous generation, Ryan would be played by Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. Gosling is certainly not a proficient singer/dancer like Kelly. Emma Stone can’t vocalize like Judy Garland either. Stone has what you might call a delicate whisper of a voice. Damien Chazelle is aware they aren’t up to that standard, but that’s OK. In some ways, their inadequacies are part of their appeal. There is a lack of pretense and polish to their numbers that actually makes this more accessible and less artificial. When they burst into song, the expression appears almost naturally – an outpouring of their passion already existing on the screen. What they miss in singing ability, they more than overcompensate for with feeling. Those overly produced pitch-perfect confections on the TV show Glee may be flawless from a sonic standpoint, but they often forget the human element that gives the composition feeling and soul. When these individuals croon they reach for your heart first. Your brain might tell you they aren’t accomplished vocalists, but your heart tells you they’re in love. That is what ultimately matters in a story about human emotion.

We already knew director Damien Chazelle was talented. His last feature Whiplash garnered 5 Oscar nominations and 3 wins, including one for its star J. K. Simmons. He briefly appears in a cameo here. However following up success can often be an intimidating task for a newcomer. Damien Chazelle tackled a daunting project. Musicals aren’t common these days. Oh sure there’s Disney’s animated flicks and the occasional Broadway adaptation, but most younger moviegoers are unfamiliar with the idea. When actors break into song it can feel corny. An indifferent viewer rejects the idea with disbelief. How do you stage a production grounded in the past but present it to today’s jaded audiences? What Damien Chazelle pulls off in La La Land is nothing less than miraculous.

In La La Land the “City of Angels” is reimagined through the glorious sheen of the late 40s/early 50s Hollywood musical. For examples, watch An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, or The Band Wagon to see what I mean. What makes Chazelle’s 3rd feature so incredible is how brilliantly he understand how to reference history. He skillfully recontextualizes the vernacular of the American musical for the modern age. The exquisite score by Justin Hurwitz, elaborate production design by David Wasco, those costumes by Mary Zophres, the Technicolor, the romance – La La Land‘s aesthetic borrows from history but the time period and the characters are rooted firmly in contemporary society. 2016 is all here: cell phones, Hybrid vehicles, the part-time job as a barista. Chazelle makes our present era seem so much more magical. There is an exuberant quality I haven’t seen recently.  Mia and Sebastian radiate sweetness too. This uncorrupted pair shares a purity. You want them to be together. Their emotion is real. You fall in love. This why we go to the cinema. If I may paraphrase a famous expression once said by Humphrey Bogart, La La Land is the stuff that [movies] are made of. It is sublime.



28 Responses to “La La Land”

  1. I’ve heard many claim this is the no-brainer winner for award season. I can’t wait to see it.

  2. smilingldsgirl Says:

    It’s a very refreshing new experience that ties into nostalgia (so old and new at same time). I had a few issues with it but still very much enjoyed it.

    • For me, it lived up to all the advance hype. One of the very best (if not THE best) of 2016.

      • smilingldsgirl Says:

        That’s awesome. I don’t know if it did for me but I still enjoyed it.

        What’s good about it is really good so I get it. I just wish the songs had been more memorable and the character motivations a little more fleshed out. But I’m like the one person who had that issue with Whiplash.
        Nevertheless, it was a refreshing fun time at the movies. Light, breezy and very enjoyable. Beautiful cinematography and dancing.

      • Wow you sound kind of lukewarm about it. I’m surprised it made your Top 10.

  3. smilingldsgirl Says:

    Yeah it keeps sinking down my list more I think about it and how little I’ve thought about any of the songs since seeing it but I had a really fun time watching it. I love all the dancing sequences and the opening scene is perfect. I also loved the closing song because it was the anthem number I was waiting for. Emma Stone was great singing that song. I loved the color and energy to it. It’s very sweet, cheerful film but I just dont think the songs or relationships are as good as other musicals this year personally but I still liked it

    • Interesting. I see at least a hundred movies a year. I know you do as well. My Top 10 is filled with movies I completely loved. I’m not quick to point out their flaws because then I feel like I’ve created an unattainable standard. I suppose I do grade on a curve, but I still found 1o movies in 2016 I can champion without reservation. I like to do that because it encourages those who don’t see as many movies as I do, to see the very best ones.

      • smilingldsgirl Says:

        Yeah I know what you are saying. I guess I’m struggling with my top 10 list because I like things for different reasons. Something like Kubo I see some flaws more I think about it but I loved it. Even Zootopia I get the metaphor of race falls apart a bit but I still loved it. I don’t know where La La Land will end up but I did enjoy it.

      • smilingldsgirl Says:

        But it’s interesting what you say about unattainable standard. Perhaps I do overthink it. Some movies like Inside Out and Sing Street for me I just love the more I think about them but I guess all movies dont need to do that.

      • smilingldsgirl Says:

        But dont ignore all those positives I mentioned. Sometimes the good can be so good that it is worthy of top 10. Force Awakens is an example of that last year. I had issues with it but I loved it and the stuff I loved earned a top 10 slot. 😀

  4. You and I had completely opposite opinions on this one. Sadly, I left the theater pretty underwhelmed with it :\

    • That’s a shame. It was probably the happiest experience I had at the movie this year. It was such a hopeful, exuberant musical drama – the kind that hasn’t been made in decades. It was rather bold in this day and age.

  5. I absolutely loved Whiplash and I’m super curious about this director’s latest flick even though I’m not the biggest fan of musicals. So many great movies for me to catch up on. Good review.

    • It’s interesting to note that Jazz is a thematic connection between the two. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a jazz drummer and Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist. The two have very different sensibilities though. La La Land is light and airy where Whiplash is tormented and dark. Both are great though

  6. This was movie greatness at its best. From the opening scene, I knew I was in for something special. I would like to see this again. Ryan and Emma were so likable and real! I loved it! 4 1/2 stars

  7. Looks like this would be an amazing film. I cannot wait to see it. But, I am also interested in seeing the chemistry between Gosling and Stone. I want to believe it would be similar to that in the Notebook between Gosling and McAdams, but something tells me it would be a bit different. I sense this inner “competition” between the main characters in La La Land, and maybe there would be some psychological struggle between then even though their hearts will be tied. I may be wrong…

    • Their chemistry is indeed great. They first “meet” under less than ideal circumstances on the freeway. She actually tries to compliment him in a bar where he’s playing the piano, but again, he brushes her off. Somehow though they ultimately develop feelings for each other…

  8. btw, mr. Hobster. Where’s your “Best of 2016” post?! when can we expect that sweet nectar?

  9. This is finally coming out where I am soon and I couldn’t be more excited. An exquisite review Mark.

  10. I get why you loved La La Land, but I found it highly overrated. I respect it as an artistic piece for its homage to Hollywood films of yesteryear. Its production design, camerawork, and its timing are incredible. I found it lacking in the musical and emotional substance to carry its two hour run time though. I thought its lyrics, dancing, and singing never rose above mediocre. I had problems with the film’s story too. I didn’t feel like they developed the characters enough for me to care about them or their romance, which felt more random than warranted. I didn’t understand why she kept going after him even though he kept acting like a jerk to her. However, I loved the final act. Heartbreaking and captivating final number. Wow.

    • I suppose he acted “like a jerk” to her in the beginning but they warmed up to each other pretty quickly. That animosity is a prerequisite to almost every romance. They have to hate each other first before they can fall in love.

      • Yeah I get that, but I felt like he continued acting like a jerk even after they got together. I didn’t see the necessary depth of character to show me he was a nice guy worthy of her affection.

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