Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” Chazelle’s follow-up to the award-winning “Whiplash,” is both in the tradition of the old-fashioned Hollywood Musical and yet at the same time, it’s not quite. It’s in the tradition in that it features singing and dancing as well as stellar cinematography and choreography, it tells a compelling story while doing so, it has the feel of a musical like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “West Side Story” among others, and it enchants the audience. But Chazelle doesn’t rely on all that to make the film great. In fact, he actually moves past the traditional old-school Hollywood-happy-ending to continue the story for an additional half-hour or so, and in doing so, he delivers something far more compelling in the final act than audiences would have expected.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. “La La Land” is the best musical (or at least, best non-animated musical) to come around in a long time. It’s more energetic, nostalgic, and heartfelt than other musicals from the past decade or so (like “Les Miserables” and “Chicago”), while at the same time, it’s something more.
“La La Land” is gloriously made. You could swear Chazelle copied the entire rulebook of moviemaking from the 1950s-1960s. It’s wonderful to look at, with magnificent color pallettes, masterful camerawork that continues for long takes and doesn’t stop moving, and of course, being a musical, fun choreography for the lead actors, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, to shine through. You’d think this film was made in that popular era of musicals—even though “La La Land” is set in modern times, it doesn’t feel like it. (And that’s not a bad thing.) The opening scene alone is a masterstroke of nostalgia and effervescence—a musical number on a jammed freeway, where drivers, rather than express anger at their shared predicament, sing and dance together.
The story takes place in Los Angeles and focuses on two struggling artists—jazz musician Sebastian (Gosling) and actress Mia (Stone). They meet in the opening traffic jam (well…sort of; watch the movie, you’ll see what I mean). As time goes on, they spend more and more time together until they eventually fall in love and share a relationship.
It’s basically a love story in which boy meets girl, but here, we see something that you don’t often see in most boy-meets-girl stories—the complications of maintaining the relationship when you’re pursuing your own personal dream. They learn this the hard way when Sebastian can’t play the type of old-school jazz he wants to perform and he works for modern jazz performer Keith (John Legend) just to make some much-needed money. This causes a rift between Sebastian and Mia’s relationship as Sebastian isn’t happy doing what he does, Mia is still struggling in her pursuit of her own dream, they don’t see each other very much anymore, and hearing him talk about how upset he is about his job is too much for her.
Can I just say how ingenious the commentary is, with the Keith-jazz subplot alone? Sebastian wants to cling to his jazz heroes of the past by playing in their style, but Keith, who plays jazz for a more commercial demographic to bring in modern audiences, lets it down harshly that if artists (such as jazz musicians) don’t update for the future, that means people who celebrate the past too much will kill the art. That can actually be a bold statement for “La La Land” itself, because while Chazelle does use many elements of past inspirations for his craft, he tries his best (and succeeds) at bringing in a new way of delivering his own art—taking the things that inspired him, using what modern techniques he learned as a budding filmmaker, and blending them both resulted in something as beautiful as “La La Land.”
The back half of “La La Land” is nothing short of brilliant. If Chazelle really wanted to cling to the traditions of the past, he would’ve ended the film early on and given the audience a lovely happy ending. But no—the film continues for another 30-45 minutes to show the harsh truths of what happens after the couple thinks they’ve had their “happily ever after.” It shows how hard it is for two people who have different goals and ambitions, as well as the even harsher truth that all dreams come with a price. And when trying to be the best at what you can do is not as easy it seems and even harder than people say it is.
There is something I am curious about: what did Chazelle have to go through before he made it big as a filmmaker? Thinking about the films he’s made so far, I notice a pattern. In “Whiplash,” there was a young drummer who got brutally pushed to his limits to be “great,” and it showed the pain the poor kid had to go through to achieve recognition. In “Grand Piano,” which he wrote, Elijah Wood played a pianist who was threatened with death if he hit a wrong note while performing a difficult piece at a concert. And now, we have “La La Land,” in which Chazelle’s characters pursue their dreams, just as his previous characters in “Whiplash” and “Grand Piano” had pursued theirs, and their happy ending is not at all what they expect, and they don’t know how to feel about it. With this pattern, I have to wonder if Chazelle’s films are autobiographical at all…
I don’t want to make “La La Land” sound very depressing, because really, what I just wrote was all in interpretation. The ending, which I won’t give away, is actually rather beautiful and thought-provoking (while it may be upsetting for some audiences who expect something they’re more used to). In fact, it could serve as a short film by itself. It stirred an emotional response from me and my girlfriend when we first saw it—we left the theater talking about it immediately after.
The songs are all great, two in particular stay fresh in my memory (“Audition,” which is Mia’s theme, and “City of Stars,” which Sebastian sings to himself when pondering the future), but it’s Gosling and Stone’s movements, energy, and acting that overcome and astound me. Gosling and Stone aren’t the best singers, but that’s not important—what’s important is how they play every single number, which they do to the best of their abilities. These are performances that make other actors jealous.
There’s no other way to put it—I love “La La Land.” I love everything about it. I love the mixes of the past and the future. I love the energy put into it. I love the rich necessities that make the story more compelling. I love the performances. I love the style and look of it all. I simply love it. It is the best musical I’ve seen in a long time.