La La Land (2016)
Here’s to the fools who dream.
‘Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem,’ sings an impassioned Emma Stone in La La Land, an enchantingly rich modern-day musical-romance that centers on two star-crossed dreamers living in the City of Angels. Charismatically directed and wonderfully performed — overflowing with evocative imagery, vibrant colors and wistful jazzy sounds — La La Land brings true movie-magic back to the fore.
An ode to the unfaltering spirit of those ‘fools’ who follow their dreams — particularly in the sometimes-unforgiving City of Stars — and a love letter to old-school jazz and the Golden era of Hollywood, La La Land opens up in present-day Los Angeles. Enter struggling (yet dedicated) musician Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) — a disagreeable jazz pianist trying his darndest to make traditional jazz popular again — and aspiring young thespian Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) — a hopeful actress/ playwright working as a barista to the stars on the Warner Bros. studio lot — who first bump into one another on a congested L.A. highway, a chance encounter that sets the couple’s ill-fated love affair in motion — this on-road blockade perhaps symbolic of the ‘traffic jam’ that is their current state of life.
While Sebastian and Mia initially butt-heads, they’re drawn to one another, the pair, before long, swept up in a life-changing year-long romance, the lovers, both with their heads in the stars, chasing their own artistic ambitions. Discovering the heart-rendering highs and lows of ‘risking it all’ for creative expression, its these ‘near-impossible’ yearnings (which Sebastian and Mia try desperately hard to hold on to) that ultimately threaten to tear them apart — the strain and pressure of making it big eventually taking a toll on their relationship.
The sophomore feature from rising writer-directed Damien Chazelle, Whiplash (2014), La La Land wears its influences on its sleeve, the movie borrowing countless stylistic cues from time-honored Hollywood musicals of yesteryear; still, this film is so much more than a simple throwback. Tipping its hat to a long-forgotten genre while simultaneously reinventing it, La La Land revives the glamor, allure and raw emotion of those MGM classics — timely, in the current landscape of shared comic book universes and franchise fever, the film subtly commenting on the death of vintage cinema. An unspoiled fusion of both old and new, and photographed in anamorphic ‘CinemaScope’ — just like those Technicolor all-singing, all-dancing spectaculars of the 1950s — La La Land is a stylish, good-natured silver-screen extravaganza — à la Singin’ in the Rain (1952) or An American in Paris (1951), re-packaged for a contemporary age.
While visually modish — filmmakers never shying away from 21st Century sensibilities — Chazelle’s life-long love for cinema certainly governs the flick’s overall design, its dreamy aesthetic evoking several old-fashioned Hollywood nuances (think hand-painted backdrops, fluttering projector beams and iris in-and-out transitions), while Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren, American Hustle (2013), illuminates the screen with color-soaked vistas that one can literally taste — these often arousing certain emotions. There’s a wealth of detail in each and every frame. Moreover, Sandgren keeps proceedings melodic with lively hand-held camera movements, transporting audiences inside of the action, or in this case, the dancing, while keeping shots still and pensive when the tempo changes pace. A seamless marriage between production design and art direction — by David Wasco, Pulp Fiction (1994), and Austin Gorg, The Neon Demon (2016), respectively — the city of L.A. is almost a character in itself; portrayed vibrantly over four seasons, Chazelle’s Los Angeles reflects both starry-eyed optimism and the melancholy of broken dreams, shifting from smokey bars and neon-lit interiors to sparkling pool parties and 80s-styled mixers.
Then there are the catchy, melancholic songs — written by the film’s composer Justin Hurwitz, Whiplash (2014), and the award-winning theater lyricist team made up of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — most, accompanied by gorgeous musical numbers, which, here, possess a dream-like quality and (surprisingly) don’t come off as jarring, these interruptions serving as a storytelling mechanism (a kind of guiding light, so to speak) as opposed to random ‘time-outs’ in the narrative. Seamlessly drifting in and out of reality, these charming Broadway-esque showpieces transport our two lovebirds into picture-perfect ‘movie sets,’ merging fantasy with reality. A scene that sees Sebastian and Mia slip into the Griffith Observatory after dark, then impossibly float off the ground and waltz into a pasture of stars, will undoubtedly sweep viewers off their feet, while the film’s awesome opener, ‘Another Day of Sun,’ an energetic ensemble set on a gridlocked freeway overpass — with drivers hopping out of their automobiles and staging a supercharged song-and-dance routine (captured in one unbroken take) — immediately sets the tone — all of these choreographed beautifully by Mandy Moore (not the singer-songwriter-actress).
The showstopper, however — which previewed in the teaser trailer — is ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream),’ sung by Emma Stone in the flick’s third act, which exists as the movie’s emotional center-piece, this rousing ballad, a culmination of all the film’s themes, powerfully embodied through Stone’s sheer virtuosity, fragility and despair — this one’s sure to get most all misty-eyed, perhaps stirring up haunting memories of those long-forgotten dreams of our own.
Having appeared twice onscreen together — in both Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011) and Gangster Squad (2013) — it’s the irresistible chemistry between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling that further elevates La La Land, their connection unmistakable and genuinely sincere; this pairing, a match made in heaven. With a spring in her step or eyes brimmed with tears, the copper-haired Stone dazzles as Mia, a struggling artist caught in a cycle of dead-end auditions, freed of her inhibitions by the dashing and dapper (though somewhat sardonic) Sebastian, heart-throb Gosling giving his most honest portrayal to date, the couple’s deep connection rendered, musically, by the hypnotic ballad ‘City of Stars,’ which features as a tuneful motif throughout. Each one of these acts is Oscar caliber in my book — Stone’s maybe a little more so — both stars bringing a sort of timelessness and a real reliability to their characters, the two aiding one another in their unending ‘reach for the stars’ — even if their eventual success stories (triumphs tinged with a hint of sadness) come off as feeling a tad far fetched.
Elsewhere, ten-time Grammy winner John Legend makes his feature-film debut as Keith, the talented frontman of an up-and-coming commercial band, who call themselves The Messengers, which Sebastian reluctantly joins — compromising his own hopes and desires so that Mia can peruse hers — Legend lighting up the screen in the high-octane, feel-good jazzy-rock track ‘Start A Fire,’ which he also co-wrote. And lastly, look out for a fun little cameo from J.K. Simmons — who, here, reunites with Whiplash (2014) writer-director Damien Chazelle — as a bar manager named Bill, Sebastian’s no-nonsense boss.
Given Damien Chazelle’s reasonably ‘untested’ worth behind the lens, La La Land truly soars, the 31-year-old filmmaker crafting a bold and daring entertainer (certainly one of the year’s finest); the film, a ravishing, nostalgia-glazed tapestry of romance, humor and heartbreak, one that’s saturated in eye-popping visuals and booming with bittersweet sounds, not to mention unforgettable performances, chiefly from leads Stone and Gosling. Yes, La La Land unabashedly prods at the heartstrings, but why shouldn’t it, with Chazelle taking viewers on a mesmerizing flight into the ecstasies and hardships some endure in their unrelenting pursuit of happiness — along with the sorrows, concessions and sacrifices one must make along the way. No matter how you look at it, La La Land will surely make cinephiles (such as myself) remember why they fell in love with ‘The Movies’ in the first place, the film proving that the art of (authentic) cinema, just like love, can be a many-splendored thing!
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by S-Littner