Thursday, January 5, 2017

Movie Review: La La Land

La La Land
Directed by: Damien Chazelle.
Written by: Damien Chazelle.
Starring: Ryan Gosling (Sebastian Wilder), Emma Stone (Mia Dolan), John Legend (Keith), Rosemarie DeWitt (Laura Wilder), J. K. Simmons (Bill), Finn Wittrock (Greg Earnes), Tom Everett Scott (David), Meagen Fay (Mia's Mom), Damon Gupton (Harry), Jason Fuchs (Carlo), Jessica Rothe (Alexis), Sonoya Mizuno (Caitlin), Callie Hernandez (Tracy), Josh Pence (Josh), Anna Chazelle (Sarah).
You have to admire a film like La La Land, which from first frame to last, completely and totally embraces its premise and style, and dives headlong into it. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, La La Land is that Hollywood rarity these days – an original musical written directly for the screen. The film is a love letter to the films that inspired it – the work of Astaire and Rogers, Gene Kelly, Vincente Minelli, Stanley Donen and Jacques Demy among many (many) others. Chazelle layers in the references and the metaphors, fully aware that modern audiences may not be aware of everything he is cribbing from, which allows him some fairly brazen references. For the most part, La La Land is joy to watch for its entire runtime – two things hold it back from being the masterwork that many of the films that inspired it were – the first is that the songs, while solid and work in the context of the rest of the film, aren’t as memorable as perhaps they should be (two are – the rest I’ve already forgotten) – and the second is that La La Land is a film that just reeks of effort. All movie musicals – at least good ones – are a ton of work, and yet the very best of them seem completely and totally effortless – La La Land doesn’t. Yet, these are such minor complaints on an otherwise great movie, they hardly seem worth bringing up.
The film is about a doomed love affair between two Hollywood dreamers. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a poor jazz musician, who likes jazz in its purest form, and hates to see that it is dying, if not already dead. He dreams of owning a jazz club where they can play jazz the way it was meant to be played – although whether anyone showed up or not, is up for debate. Emma Stone is Mia, an aspiring actress, who goes out on one terrible audition after another, while making a living working as a barista in an studio lot coffee house. The two meet cute a number of times, before they finally do get together. A few other characters pop up for a few short scenes, but the film is basically focused on these two, and their relationship, doomed from the outset.
It helps to have Ryan Gosling in the role of Sebastian – because with an actor less charming that Gosling, Sebastian’s negative qualifies – his tendency to mansplain everything, his pretentious rambling about purity, etc. would otherwise make him insufferable. But because he’s played by Gosling, with a knowing smirk whenever Sebastian starts to go off on one of his tangents, you go with it as part of his goofy charm. Sebastian may well be a stand-in for Chazelle himself (who, making this as his follow-up to Whiplash, clearly loves jazz). Both Sebastian and Chazelle are in love with an art form that is arguably dead already except in terms of nostalgia (jazz for Sebastian, movie musicals for Chazelle – or perhaps, just movies!) – but are essentially in love with something they never experienced firsthand. Stone is even better than Gosling in the film, given the role of the ingénue that everyone in the audience falls in love with. Yet, as clichéd as the role may be in many ways, she makes it her own – makes it feel real. While Gosling’s Sebastian remains essentially the same throughout, Stone gradually grows, becomes a stronger, more confident person than ever before. This is expressed through her singing as well – which starts out lovely, but quiet – but gradually builds throughout the film, culminating with Audition – easily the best song in the film, when she finally lets loose. Stone has been doing great work for a while now – here, she takes it to a different level.
The musical numbers in La La Land are fine. The opening number is an odd one – it doesn’t really involve with Gosling or Stone, and is a large scale number set on the freeway in LA – which of course means during a traffic jam. What the number does do is establish exactly what kind of movie this is going to be, also gives Chazelle an excuse to stage the kind of large scale musical number the rest of the movie will not be (you get the feeling he has wanted to make a musical for his entire life, and isn’t going to miss his chance to do whatever he wants with it). I do think it’s the film worst musical number – except for John Legend’s song, which I still cannot figure out if it’s supposed to be bad, or whether it just wasn’t for me (I have no idea why Legend wanted to be in the film – essentially playing a John Legend type as a sellout – even if he’s a sellout with a point).
I did admire how the film wears its heart on its sleeve, and has no embarrassment about embracing every musical cliché imaginable. We’re already in a fantasy world for the most part, and yet even that doesn’t stop Chazelle from having a fantasy inside a fantasy in the films closing moments – where one character imagines what would have happened had they done something different, producing a wonderful montage that is even more emotionally heightened than the rest of the film. The cinematograph is beautiful – shot on film, naturally – and gives the films a wonderful look.
All in all, La La Land is a wonderful movie musical. Yes, I have my share of problems with the film – all of which are relatively minor, but do add up. But you cannot help but admire Chazelle who has made one of the year’s most ambitious films here, if not quite one of its vert best.

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