La La Land (2016)

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Tom Everett Scott, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Callie Hernandez.

Director: Damien Chazelle
Rating: PG-13 (for some language.)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Date: December 9, 2016

Black Label Media, Gilbert Films, Imposter Pictures, Marc Platt Productions, and Lionsgate.

Written by: Damien Chazelle.

OUR REVIEW:

Sometimes, all too rarely in fact, a film arrives that you just want to take and show everybody. One of those movies so fun, thoughtful, magical, enjoyable, and entertaining that you know you will find something different to enjoy with every subsequent viewing.

Welcome to Damien Chazelle‘s La La Land.

Building off his electrifying three-time Oscar winning debut, Whiplash, Chazelle takes us to a modern-day Los Angeles, where time and space are poorly defined. We have throwback jazz clubs, costumes that seem to reflect any number of generations of style, and two hopeless dreamers, Sebastian and Mia (Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone), who hope to make it in Hollywood.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in “La La Land” | Lionsgate

Mia is a barista on a studio lot, while Sebastian is a jazz musician. She shares an apartment with three other acting hopefuls, all on the cusp of being discovered, while Sebastian litters his rundown apartment with artifacts he cops from an old jazz club which is now a fancy restaurant. Apparent opposites who become more equal to one another over time, Mia and Sebastian meet awkwardly and keep finding ways to interact. Soon, they fall for one another and over the course of four seasons, Chazelle gives us a musical story of two fools who dare to dream.

From the thrilling opening moments, defined by a showstopping song-and-dance member on a jam-packed Los Angeles off-ramp, we see Mia fail in audition after audition and decide to take a D.I.Y. approach and write her own one-woman play. Sebastian wrestles with a steely-eyed club owner (J.K. Simmons) over what music to play in something of a residency, and sees interest in his passion for jazz dying all around him.

Stone and Gosling are electric on screen together. Literally every moment they share is one that leaves us wanting more; a yin to the other’s yang. They are fascinated with one another and forever inquisitive as to what makes the other one tick. Stone’s Mia is smart, weathered, vulnerable, and too proud to admit she just might be in over her head. Gosling’s Sebastian is a harder nut to crack, holding his emotions close to the vest. He seems to only feel comfortable opening up to his sister Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt), who he unleashes all of his angst and frustrations upon. He is also too proud to admit he just might be in over his head as well.

But together they go, each compromising and relenting on their dream to take on other chances that feel right and may just be too good to pass up. And Chazelle captures the dream-like haze surrounding not only his film, but also of all the dreamers who go to Hollywood to one day make it big.

The musical numbers Chazelle commissioned from composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are engaging, centered on character and Gosling and Stone’s vocals are real, occasionally imperfect, and simply wonderful. Together, they enhance a somber Gosling solo piece into an enchanting ballad of courtship, Chazelle front-loading his film with most of the musical moments.

A shift occurs when challenges arise for the young couple and the songs fade away and the intensity and emotions heighten exponentially. And the film finds another layer of impact, because Chazelle knows how to build something new out of a longing for nostalgia and remnants of the past.

“La La Land” | Lionsgate

In Whiplash, Miles Teller’s jazz drummer was attempting to impress a tyrant of a teacher in J.K. Simmons, whose musical passions and teaching methods were antiquated, abusive, and shockingly out of tune. La La Land pulls from the past, but recognizes the superficiality of colorful sets, costumes, and flawlessly choreographed dance numbers. Mia and Sebastian dare to look past the smoke and mirrors and Chazelle is not afraid to peer behind the curtain. In Chazelle’s Los Angeles, hearts and dreams still get broken each and every day and in the film’s more sobering second half, La La Land becomes a film steeped in melancholy, fear, regret, and worry. In short, nothing has changed. No matter how fancy you gussy up the Hollywood gimmick, that town can still rip your heart out, stomp on your neck, and discard you like you never mattered in the first place.

Chazelle also can put together a movie masterfully well. His connectivity to Whiplash made it crackle with intensity and excitement. Here, it would not surprise anyone if you started a metronome and discovered the film has been cut to match a certain rhythm. Very early on, La La Land sweeps you up, throws you into this very real fantasy world and then allows you to escape. We like Stone and Gosling so much that we believe them in these roles, we root for their successes, feel sad for their failures.

As far as musicals go, the really great ones stand the test of time because they create moments -transporting us to a wonderland of escapism that conventional narratives seldom can achieve. In the moment, La La Land feels like an all-timer. Six songs exist within the film and in a final number, Stone delivers a vocal performance in “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” that will blow you away, the actress delivering a performance and a moment you likely never knew she could deliver.

The surprises are frequent and often, the Planetarium scene still makes me smile just thinking about it, and the film even makes the bittersweet moments resonate deep within your soul.

Easily at or near the top of the best films of 2016. I cannot stop thinking about it and I cannot stop smiling over the magic created by Stone and Gosling. In the end, Damien Chazelle has made a love story to all the Mias and Sebastians, those fools who dream, smiling through the highs and lows, willing to do it again and again.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

SHOULD I SEE IT?

YES

  • Almost perfect from start to finish. Go. Go now. Go again. Cross this off your Oscar bucket list. It’s getting lots of nominations come January 2017.
  • Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are as good as ever, but they step out of their comfort zones here to deliver two memorable and unforgettable performances.
  • The music, the nostalgia, the very real and bittersweet story to be told – this is Hollywood in all its imperfect splendor.

NO

  • You despise musicals and can never understand why a movie would have people singing in them.
  • Films with Oscar buzz make you run away. Hipster.
  • You are a contrarian who won’t watch things people tell you is great. Seriously, check your ego, give this a chance and thank me later!

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