by PJ YermanPresented in stunning Cinemascope and written and directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), La La Land beautifully sets in motion a love story between Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a down-on-his-luck jazz pianist, as they sing and dance their way through the City of Stars in a quest to achieve their dreams.
I have to be honest. As someone whose passion for filmmaking spawned from my grandmother showing me Singin’ in the Rain when I was five (RIP Debbie Reynolds), I had extremely high expectations for a modern interpretation of a seemingly (and most unfortunately) bygone genre of 1950s-style Hollywood movie musicals. I’ve seen La La Land three times now, and while it’s no Singin’ in the Rain (But really, can anything be?), it more than lives up to its potential by delivering a staggering cinematic experience.
There is so much to love about this movie. For starters, the music is fantastic. This film could’ve been technically flawless and told a story that was airtight, but if the music was bad or even just “okay,” it would’ve all fallen apart. As long as the initial suspension of disbelief kicks in, it should be effortless to become fully immersed in this musical world. Ensemble numbers like “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd” introduce us to Chazelle’s magical world of contemporary Los Angeles with catchy, upbeat melodies, while Gosling and Stone’s reluctant duet, “A Lovely Night” and Stone’s intimate and heartbreaking “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” remind us of how seamlessly integrating, aesthetically impressive, and emotionally powerful movie musicals can be. I’m not ashamed to say I own the soundtrack and fully intended to listen on repeat until the tape unspools… No, I didn’t buy an actual cassette, but it’s a better analogy than, “Listen until iTunes stops working.”
And what would the music be without the talent of the performers? In their third outing together, Gosling and Stone prove once again that they make for an iconic on-screen duo in both their chemistry as a couple and their synchronous musical abilities. Stone, however, might slightly outshine Gosling here; her numerous auditioning scenes alone may well earn her an Academy Award nomination, if not the trophy itself. Gosling, while charming and stylish as ever, struggles with hitting some of those notes outside his octave range and does little to impress with some of the underwhelming choreography of his dance numbers. I have to commend him for learning how to play the piano from scratch just for this film, though (the long takes of his jaw-dropping recitals unequivocally prove his dedication).
Speaking of long takes, La La Land is chock full of them. The art of filmmaking is alive and well in the hands of Chazelle, who employs classically inspired camera techniques that allow audiences to be swept away in the musical fantasies playing out on screen while letting the actors’ performances speak for themselves, uninterrupted by heavy editing. You won’t find any shots of an actor’s upper half as he or she makes “dance faces” preceding a shot of a body double’s time-stepping legs here. It could be argued that the camera itself plays another character inhabiting this world, weaving through a continuous, six-to-seven-minute tracking shot or drifting from a wide shot to a close-up at the drop of a tap shoe. Even with these sweeping, logistically complex shots that define the rhythm of the film, Chazelle can’t help but occasionally revert back to the uniquely successful editing style that defined the rhythm of his previous film, Whiplash; rapid fire, on-beat cuts tend to accompany any live jazz performances seen in the movie. The two styles are visually pleasing and compliment each other well.Overall, the cinematography is nothing to scoff at. Shot on 35mm celluloid, it’s clear from the get-go that these images have been meticulously crafted to maintain a timelessness similar to the movie musicals from which they draw inspiration. The strategic use of color establishes a dream-like aura around the story while giving insight into character; Mia often wears blue when something significant happens to her, Sebastian is enticed by yellow when it’s worn by either Mia or Keith (John Legend), his former classmate who offers him a job, and the couple is united by purple, which bathes the L.A. skyline behind their first dance number. Truly, not a frame is out of place, not a shot is wasted.
One of the more remarkable things about La La Land is how it subverts tropes of classic Hollywood romances, avoiding over-saccharinity and allowing story to take precedent over music. The presence of several montages makes these subversions most evident. While the unavoidable “going on dates, walking in parks, falling in love” montage falls in line with what we expect from a love story, also present is the more realistic “growing apart, giving up, watching your dreams crumble around you” sequence of scenes that help ground the film and show the city and the characters in a less glamorous light. The film may be a feature-length love letter to Los Angeles and those who pilgrimage to its palm trees and endless sunshine to realize their dreams, but what really resonated with me was the tragedy involved in such a romantic story, both emotionally and poetically. I’m forewarning you; in this cinematic world of dancing, singing, and bright colors, don’t prepare for the happiest of endings.
Looking back on the three separate occasions that I got to experience La La Land, I was able to recognize more of its musical and narrative nuances after each one. The problem, though, is that because of my insanely heightened expectations, I was left feeling just the slightest bit of disappointment upon leaving the theater for the first time. While certain elements of the film are without fault, it’s not a perfect film. The pacing of the second act seems to grind to a halt with an over-saturation of iris transitions, and at first glance, it isn’t always clear if the song lyrics and the characters’ motivations for singing made sense narratively. Upon subsequent viewings, I’ve realized that these components are essential in the storytelling and make for a more balanced arc. However, I can’t ignore my initial gut reactions, which, while it pains me, disqualifies it from receiving a perfect rating.
An unforgettable cinematic achievement, La La Land had me singing and dancing along with its infectious music, lovely performances, and utterly impeccable direction.
4.5 out of 5 stars