I start the writing of this review about an hour and a half after getting out of the theater to see La La Land, the latest from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of musicals, but for most of this last hour and a half, I have had a smile on my face as bits and pieces of this film come floating back into my mind. Whiplash has become one of my favorite films of this decade, and I was eagerly anticipating his next feature, and when I had heard it was a musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, it made my anticipation grow even more. It did not disappoint.
From the opening moments of the film, which breaks into a sudden song and dance routine in a traffic jam on an onramp of the LA freeway, the film makes no bones about what kind of film it will be. It’s a rousing, energetic opening number that comes out of nowhere, and then disappears as suddenly as it began. Stuck in the traffic jam is Mia (Stone) an aspiring actress who works as a barista at a Starbucks on a Hollywood lot. Directly behind her and laying on the horn when she doesn’t see traffic begin to move is Sebastian (Gosling), an aspiring jazz pianist who has dreams of owning his own jazz club someday. He goes around her and disdainfully shakes his head at her, only for her to oblige with a one-finger salute. This is the first of several times that their paths will cross until they eventually dance their way into a relationship. The film charts their relationship as well as their pursuit of their dreams in LA, a city that can crush a hundred dreams for every one that gets realized.
Aside from the first few big, impressive musical numbers, the first time the film really makes you take notice that something special is happening on screen is the second time they cross paths, as Mia walks into a restaurant and sees Sebastian playing piano. Chazelle has the lights lowered and spotlights shine both of them; essentially the rest of the world fades away and its just the two of them. They’re incredible shots that are repeated at a few more points in the film to great effect. The lighting in this and several other scenes are as key to the film as the songs and the dancing.
The third time they come across each other leads to a beautiful song and dance number between them, at sunset, underneath a lamplight and overlooking LA. A second dance later on between them takes place at the LA Observatory, and starts off as a nice ode to Rebel Without a Cause before giving way to a magical moment where they are dancing in air that is truly unforgettable.
These and others are moments of pure movie magic, moments that seem to happen with far less frequency in today’s Hollywood. Indeed, so much of this film is an ode to the kinds of movies that Hollywood used to make in the 40s, 50s, and 60s (the movie is even presented in Cinemascope). But to say it is only a throwback to a bygone era of movies is selling La La Land short. It’s telling a modern story in a old Hollywood way, but it’s also refreshingly different from just about any other musical in recent history. It also pretty seamlessly blends the musical elements with the reality of the characters, giving it a feeling of having its head in the clouds, but also having a foot in reality. And it runs you through just about every emotion in the book, but in such a pleasant way.
Often, this is done through amazing songs. There’s been a lot of talk in musical theatre circles in the past year or so about Lin-Manuel Miranda and the EGOT. He’s only lacking in the Oscar category, and many think he has a shot based on the high quality musical numbers in Moana, which he helped create. But Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz, who scored the film and composed the songs, and Beji Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the song lyrics, are the prohibitive favorites, at least in my mind, to essentially sweep those categories at the Oscars this year. “A Lovely Night” which accompanies the scene under the streetlamp, “Planetarium” during the LA Observatory scene, “City of Stars” which recurs several times, but is featured during a beautiful shot of the pier, and finally slow-building “Audition (Fools Who Dream)” during an audition are highlights, both for the people who crafted them, and for Stone and Gosling as the actors.
There is a bit of talk in the film about jazz being a dying genre of music. Sebastian is passionate about jazz and how creative it is. As a friend, played by John Legend, points out, it’s hard to be a revolutionary when you’re a traditionalist. “You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” It feels like that is something that Chazelle is himself grappling with here. Musicals, particularly this kind of musical, is largely a thing of the past. What Chazelle is trying to do here, and hopefully going forward, is to create something using the tools of the past that serves the present and can be about the future.
Sebastian, at one point, tries to explain to Mia why jazz isn’t boring, showing that it’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s new every time and it’s very, very exciting. In this same way, La La Land is the type of film that shows how exciting they can be. It’s the kind of film that invites you in and gets you in on its wavelength and captivates for nearly the entire time. It’s colorful, sincere, and full of heart. The best movies, to me, are the ones that stick with you when you leave the theater. They linger in your mind for hours, days, and sometimes even weeks. Even hours after leaving La La Land, I’m still experiencing it. I stepped out of the theater and the world seemed a little dull in comparison, as La La Land is so immersively vibrant. But that dullness was soon replaced by a whistling of Ryan Gosling, the face of Emma Stone, and fond memories of a film that has taken up temporary residence in my mind.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars