La La Land (2016) Summit/Musical-Comedy-Drama RT: 128 minutes Rated PG-13 (some language) Director: Damien Chazelle Screenplay: Damien Chazelle Music: Justin Hurwitz Cinematography: Linus Sandgren Release date: December 9, 2016 (US, limited)/December 16, 2016 (US, expansion) Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Tom Everett Scott, Meagan Fay, Damon Gupton, Jason Fuchs, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Callie Hernandez, Josh Pence, Anna Chazelle.
2016 will be remembered by many as a year marked by too many celebrity deaths, a contentious and divisive Presidential election and a long list of disappointing movies (I’m looking at you, Rogue One!). I think we could all use an escape from reality. Welcome to La La Land, a light-hearted song-and-dance musical romance starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as a pair of dreamers brought together by fate. I’m not one to jump on the bandwagon especially where movies are concerned. In this case, I have to agree with many of my esteemed colleagues; La La Land is the best movie of the year!
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), La La Land is the real deal. It’s not done ironically as most young hipster filmmakers are wont to do. He’s sincere in his efforts to make an old-fashioned Hollywood musical where characters break into song and dance to express their feelings. The lush color scheme recalls such classics as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Singin’ in the Rain. It’s filmed in 1950s-style wide-screen CinemaScope. The numbers are performed in a single take like the works of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The closing “The End” shot even informs us that it was “Filmed in Hollywood, U.S.A.” You can’t get more old school than that.
La La Land opens with a real show stopper on Los Angeles’ I-105 freeway. As usual, the bumper-to-bumper traffic is moving at a crawl. Drivers start jumping out of their cars to sing and dance (“Another Day in the Sun”). They dance on the road and on tops of cars. It’s a large splashy number reminiscent of Busby Berkeley that even manages to incorporate a skateboarder and BMX biker. Chazelle films it in long, unbroken takes. You get to see not just the moves but the dancer’s entire body. This is important because it’s how feelings and emotions are conveyed throughout the film. It’s a great scene that elicited applause from the audience at the finish.
This is where we first meet the two main characters. Aspiring actress Mia (Stone) works as a barista at a studio coffee shop located right across the street from the balcony used in Casablanca. She rushes off to one audition after another but it’s an exercise in futility. Many times, the producers blow her off without even looking up from their iPhones. Aspiring jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) wants to open his own club so he can play his own music rather than dull standards people don’t even listen to at restaurant and parties. For him, jazz is a living, breathing, exciting entity.
Their first few encounters aren’t exactly meet-cutes but they soon realize they have more in common than they think. Even though they agree they’re not right for each other, their bodies tell a different story than the lyrics of “A Lovely Night”, a beautifully choreographed tap-dance number.
Their dreams still unrealized, the two of them take matters into their own hands. Mia decides to write a one-woman play while Sebastian accepts a gig playing keyboards in a pop-oriented band headed by an old friend (singer Legend). It’s not the kind of music he wants to play but it pays well. It leads to problems between Mia and Sebastian.
Like many a romantic musical, the plot and characters are paper-thin. La La Land does have great emotional depth however. The feelings expressed in the lyrics and moves are palpable. Some of the music- e.g. “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme”- is positively transcendent. I have a feeling that “The Fools Who Dream”, the song Mia sings for an audition near the end, will nab this year’s Best Song Oscar. It’s absolutely beautiful. There’s also an impressive number (“Planetarium”) at the Griffith Observatory where the two lovers literally defy gravity and dance on air.
Chazelle does something very interesting with La La Land. While it’s undoubtedly romantic, it’s not exactly a fairy tale. There’s an underlying sadness to it. It seems to be saying that there’s no room for dreamers in contemporary, cynical Hollywood. Also, it depicts the dying out of old Hollywood. At one point, Mia and Sebastian attend a screening of Rebel Without a Cause at an old revival theater. The film breaks about midway through. Later, the theater is closed down. It’s moments like this that lend a bit of gravitas to La La Land.
Gosling and Stone, in their third cinematic pairing (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad), are terrific together. Their chemistry is very strong. They deliver great individual performances as well. It helps that they can both carry a tune and dance a few steps. J.K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for his performance in Whiplash, shows up briefly as the club owner who fires Sebastian for having the gall to play his own music for paying customers. Chazelle makes excellent use of the L.A. locations. The cinematography is gorgeous; the choreography is flawless. The set design is also quite good. I can’t think of a single negative thing to say about La La Land. It’s the kind of movie musical I love. It’s a genre that carried people through the Great Depression of the 20s and 30s. We need this kind of movie now more than ever. Breaking into song and dance does have therapeutic value. This movie is a total must-see!