REVIEW: La La Land [2016]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 128 minutes | Release Date: December 9th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Lionsgate
Director(s): Damien Chazelle
Writer(s): Damien Chazelle

“Or one more dream that I cannot make true”

Writer/director Damien Chazelle burst onto the scene in 2014 on the back of his Oscar-nominated and critical darling Whiplash. It took this jazz drummer time to finally breakthrough with his sophomore feature, time that saw actors and producers taking a risk on him that would ultimately pay off big creatively and financially. Well the spoils trickled down to the man behind the art too as a long gestating musical project from 2010 became a feasible follow-up. This effort would end up being La La Land, a piece Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz put on paper at Harvard before shooting a short proof of concept set in Boston. Studios said yes then, but only if the jazz was replaced by rock. Sometimes meritorious fame can quickly turn things around.

Not only was Chazelle afforded the luxury of keeping the work’s integrity intact as he shifted it into a bona fide Los Angeles film, Lionsgate actually told him to increase the budget. Talk about a dream coming true—one that’s all but assured of landing the young filmmaker another Best Picture nomination at the Oscars with a legitimate shot at winning. Its love letter to a bygone era of fantasy-tinged romance and idyllic dreamers is as similar as it is different from Chazelle’s previous work, its cheerily hopeful lilt contrasting Whiplash‘s claustrophobically tense drama despite both ostensibly being two-handers about artists striving for success. Whereas the latter’s Andrew was held back (and propelled) by his teacher, the former’s Sebastian and Mia champion each other while also self-sabotaging themselves.

The city’s a character as the opening number “Another Day of Sun” exclaims via its massive stand-still on the LA freeway with brightly colored choreographed excitement ending upon the caption “Winter.” It’s a world of dreamers—natives and transplants alike—who have converged upon a city of beautiful urban landscapes and more hope than reality can ever fulfill. Mia (Emma Stone) has come from Boulder City, NV for acting success only to find an unforgiving job as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot and disrespectful casting agents leading too-quick auditions for work that only sounds good when you’ve secured a role. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) finds himself in downtown LA because of its expansive jazz history, but he’s been relegated to playing Christmas songs because of Kenny G.

Their lives are as depressing as they are comical, their constant run-ins with each other much the same. Impatient car horns and 80s New Wave bring them together with a mixture of destiny and humor that combats the prickly edges of abrupt brush-offs and LA individuality. They’re very similar in aspirations and persona, though, both romantic about their art yet willing to look the other way if it means opening a door leading somewhere else. Mia strives to write and create roles perfectly suited to her talents while Sebastian seeks to reopen a legendary jazz spot now home to samba and tapas as a club where he picks the music. She endures the grind while he inevitably fails to transform it (just ask J.K. Simmons‘ no-nonsense club owner).

Love is the constant they discover they needed. His positivity drives her to focus on a one-woman show and being with her pushes him to welcome compromise and reunite with an old friend (John Legend‘s Keith) on a new lucrative opportunity. But creative success and monetary success are not the same. Decisions are made because each believes the other wants them to make them. Suddenly personal trajectories come into direct conflict with shared desires and a choice must be made between love for art and love for each other. All the insecurities every artist confronts—whether ideas of selling-out to not being good enough to readjusting priorities at the detriment of something great—enter the fray and it’s this honesty that separates La La Land from its classic Hollywood predecessors.

Chazelle cast Stone and Gosling because he felt they harkened back to an era of Hollywood couples like Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. He uses that by infusing their charisma and acting chops for both the comedic and dramatic into a world reminiscent of Jacques Demy‘s French-language greats. There’s this longing on behalf of the characters and the audience for the two to be together, but that no longer needs to be the main impetus for romantic-based musicals to earn mainstream happily-ever-after appeal. It’s not about gender stereotypes or cultural conservatism where an embrace means everything is okay. Mia and Sebastian need each other and love each other, but they are their own people too. Sometimes love isn’t strong enough to adjust with our dream for pure happiness.

So there are ebbs and flows throughout their individual journeys during this fateful year of personal and professional tumult. They mock each other with “A Lovely Night”. They declare their feelings in “City of Stars” after a magical dance for two at the Griffith Observatory. We listen to Sebastian adjust his jazz expectations with The Messengers’ hit “Start a Fire” and truly witness the depths of Mia’s soul on “The Fools Who Dream”. These musical numbers transport us visually into a genre steeped in tradition, but the content and context serve the plot in ways that make each more than enjoyable interludes. We experience their frustration, joy, pain, and regret. We watch them move along paths they cannot anticipate beyond the self-realization of how they feel inside.

And it all culminates in a breathtakingly bittersweet epilogue with musical callbacks and a fantasized theatrical-based reenactment of what could have been. It admittedly took me a little bit to reconcile the bubbly nature of the first act with these complex characters seemingly taking way too much on the chin, but it began making sense once the second act brought the drama necessary to risk ripping their whirlwind romance wide open. We need to know that high before accepting the low. We need to watch Mia and Sebastian act selflessly in ways that aren’t apparent until scene’s end to understand how much they mean to each other regardless of where they may go next. Only by seeing this can we know the strength their true passions wield.

Chazelle’s epic fires on all cylinders with a toe-tapping jazz score, catchy tunes possessed by as much fun as melancholy, and two central performances transcending the “celebrity” that got them the roles. I wasn’t too sure about Gosling singing and dancing, but he’s wonderful here hamming it up a la The Nice Guys without ever sacrificing the Blue Valentine pain beneath. Stone is radiant, her comic appeal during an 80s-themed party only supplanted by her quiet moments of heartbreak and an unforgettable silent smile of pride at the end. They make us fall in love with them hook, line, and sinker and Chazelle gracefully delivers everything that love covets right alongside everything an authentic depiction of life delivers instead. For one dream’s realization, another’s lost but never forgotten.

[1] Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in LA LA LAND. Photo Credit: Dale Robinette
[2] The cast of LA LA LAND. Photo Credit: Dale Robinette
[3] Keith (John Legend, left) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, right) in LA LA LAND. Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

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