“La La Land,” as its title would imply, is a story about music and dreams. Its nostalgic color palette, narrative style, and use of visual effects make it evident that the film’s director (Damien Chazelle) holds the time of Hollywood’s Golden Era in great reverence. The references are there in obvious light: the Ingrid Bergman poster, the homage to “Rebel Without a Cause,” the film’s presentation in CinemaScope, its use of technicolor, and the mention of “Casablanca.” However, Chazelle is neither obsessive nor blatantly aggressive with his references, and the story has an illustrious sense of originality and corniness to it that makes it the best feel-good and best overall movie of the year.
Chazelle’s previous film, “Whiplash,” was one of the best films of 2014. Now he has directed the best film of 2016. His films have been marked by a common musical theme: jazz. Chazelle himself was an aspiring drummer, much like his lead character in Whiplash, but unlike Neiman, Chazelle knew he wasn’t the next Charlie Parker. I’m sure we’re all glad he chose filmmaking as his career. Like jazz itself, Chazelle’s films are always new and exciting. There is a great sense of innovation and energy in the film’s musical numbers as well as within its narration. While “Whiplash” was a grueling psychological excavation, “La La Land” is a fun and enjoyable tale of passion and romance.
The film opens with a dazzling spectacle of everyday traffic-goers getting out of their cars in a jam to sing and dance to a perfectly timed and expertly choreographed musical number. Only in a Hollywood musical could a notorious L.A. traffic jam be so fun and entertaining. I would imagine if all traffic jams were this way, they would be much more bearable, and God forbid much more common.
“La La Land” presents our lead characters in an interesting way. It tells each character’s story independently rather than simultaneously. Their meeting therefore makes more sense chronologically and their connection is more powerful. Mia is a struggling actress who cannot seem to make a break, and Sebastian is a poor jazz pianist; a stubborn traditionalist wanting to open his own club rather than give in to synthesized pop rehash. I honestly had forgotten Gosling’s character’s name halfway through the movie, but it didn’t matter. The names are not important. Much of the story is told through music and movements rather than lyrics and script. The epilogue is especially impressive.
The musical numbers are utterly charming. The dance moves certainly reflect modern tastes, as they involve more flips and improv than rehearsed footwork. Gosling can sing, albeit with a nasal quality, but his intonation is a bit crude. His range is rather limited, but that ultimately does not retract from any of the songs. It’s likely the music was transposed or written specifically with his limits in mind. Emma Stone gives the performance of her career. Her voice is also fair. “The Fools Who Dream” is a highlight amongst the track list. “City of Stars” is meant to be the main feature, but in my opinion is the weakest of all the tracks. I will admit to some bias, as I prefer songs at faster tempos. Gosling’s piano skills are on full display. He reportedly spent three months preparing for the shoots. His reprise of the main love theme is inspiring and beautiful.
It would be unfair to hold Gosling and Stone to the likes of Gene Kelly and Rosemary Clooney. While their musical talents may not be on the same level, their star power is irrefutable. Gosling is effortlessly smooth and charismatic. Stone is a skilled actress who brings her all. Had the movie not been a musical, it still would have been a success. While other musical actors would fail when the script requires more depth, Gosling and Stone soar. There is great emotional depth in their characters’ arcs.
Unlike many musicals, “La La Land” is not centered around existing musical talents or a stage production. It tells a story from start to finish. The finish is somewhat bittersweet, but pleasantly avoids typical Hollywood cliché. In fact, had it ended any other way, I would have been unsatisfied.
At a time in my life when I find myself often dreaming about possible futures and trying to discover my own passions, “La La Land” undeniably strikes a chord. However, it is Chazelle’s visionary direction, the magnificent performances from its stars, and the vibrant and spirited score that brings everything together. There really isn’t much to fault here.