LA LA LAND (Movie Review)

**** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for some language)
Released:  December 9, 2016 NY & LA: December 16 limited. Everywhere January 6, 2017.
Runtime: 128 minutes
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, J.K. Simmons, Rosemarie DeWitt

Available to rent through Amazon Video or buy on Blu-rayDVD, and 4K. Proceeds from purchases made through these links go to support this blog.

Ranked #4 on My Top 10 List For 2016, and Winner of 6 Academy Awards including Best Director (Damien Chazelle) and Best Actress (Emma Stone)

(To read my spoiler-filled commentary about the ending to La La Land, click here.)

Right from the fade up on its CinemaScope slate, La La Land is a Golden Age throwback in both form and spirit. This modern-day musical joyously and unequivocally lives up to the hype…but could also fall prey to it.

It’s everything you’ve heard it was, are expecting it to be, and probably even hoped for – including big musical numbers (like the opener on the Los Angeles freeway ramp between the 105 and the 110) – but for as artful and eye-popping as it all is (and boy is it), La La Land is also told on a modest scale with a melancholy heart that feels much more off-Broadway than on.

A 1930s hoofer set in the 2000-teens that looks like it came from the 1960s, this is a 21st Century L.A. tuner that emulates old studio musicals, maintains a whimsical innocence, and Tinseltown may even give it their biggest honor come Oscar night. But deep down, underneath its initially gimmicky surface, La La Land is an indie movie at its heart and soul. Its old, romantic soul.

Part of the charm and thrill is that it’s all done on a small $30 million dollar budget (“midrange” studio films cost twice that) with scenes staged in the real world, not solely constructed on a studio backlot. It’s also part of the feat, especially as entire sequences – including dance numbers – unfold in grandly choreographed single takes (or just a couple of takes, seamlessly patched). With spectacular, energized lensing from d.p. Linus Sandgren that wields sleight-of-hand camerawork and lighting shifts meant for the stage, not screen, La La Land makes for a phenomenal fusion of cinema and theatre.

Director Damien Chazelle, in his follow-up to the Oscar-winning low budget jazz thriller Whiplash, defies high degrees of difficulty from start to finish without the fallback of digital cheats. Yes, there are some visual effects at play that allow the story to reach a magical realism (that Planetarium scene, enchanting), but the bulk of this visual wonder is all in-camera, including not one but two Gene Kelly homages. Chazelle, among his influences, clearly had Singin’ In The Rain and An American In Paris on the brain (and in the heart).

Chazelle’s not just a lover of musicals but of movies and music, and his nerdiness for showtunes, jazz, and the big screen canvas equally shines through. He’s both a purist and idealist, demanding the best because he’s so smitten with it, intoxicated by infinite nuances and unquantifiable mysteries. Songwriter/composer Justin Hurwitz is his most vital collaborator (in a crew that boasts impressive ones across the board), crafting songs that can stand alongside old Sinatra and Crosby standards. Chazelle’s also a nerd with style; La La Land often looks like Warren Beatty’s colorfully artificial Dick Tracy rendered real.

There’s emotional substance to all of this glorious fluff, too, rooted in the possibly star-crossed love story between Mia, a would-be actress, and Sebastian, a struggling jazz pianist. Fate brings them together, natch, in the simple power of being blindsided on first sight, but there’s also some sussing out between these two opposites that makes their romance legitimate (and old-fashioned sexy), not flighty.

As their love grows, the biggest challenge they face isn’t contrived from the standard plot machinations (old loves, dark secrets, family protests, fatal illnesses, et al) but the truest, most universal of villains: Life itself.

What gives it all beauty is that these two artistic dreamers, whose self-doubts are compounded by the cold rejections of their professions, become each other’s biggest champions. They see everything in the other that the other longs to be, but has lost sight of. Life has beaten the dream out of them by a thousand cuts. The other sees and believes, and the possibilities become their passion too. It’s the kind of thing that love is made of.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone fulfill the challenges of these roles, both technical and internal, with the charisma of classic matinee idols. Gosling has the moves of Gene Kelly and the coolness of James Dean, a dashing but complicated dreamboat, while Stone is a true starlet, the fusion of Audrey Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ginger Rogers. These two should become a screen thing, like Tracey and (Kate) Hepburn or Hanks and Ryan. (An argument could be made that Stone should be digitized into The Notebook retroactively.)

But it’s Stone who shines brightest, and digs deepest. She also sang her solos live on set, and with the wistful poignancy of “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” she will have your heart. Her turn as Mia is a fulfillment on the promise of every role that’s lead up to it, from a career worthy of awards that are still deferred. She’s not even 30 and she’s already a treasure.

Chazelle ended Whiplash with an extended musical sequence that was driven by high dramatic stakes. He does the same thing here in principle but with a very different tone, and vision. It had my heart pounding, breaking, and hoping, and it elevates the whole endeavor from a frothy nostalgia homage to something substantial.

Like It’s A Wonderful Life, La La Land asks us to consider which of our dreams are the most important, but does so in its own bittersweet way.

(To read my spoiler-filled commentary about the ending to La La Land, click here.)

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