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I couldn’t ever guess that the same talented director who gave us 2014’s Whiplash, a Full Metal Jacket-style film about jazz, would deliver a traditional musical as his next feature film. Knowing this information prior to La La Land‘s release hung a giant question mark over writer/director Damien Chazelle‘s latest. I’m not too fond of musicals in general, so my excitement was rather lukewarm up until this feature landed big with film festival audiences. They raved about the directing in the energetic opening musical number, how infectious the songs were, and how palpable the chemistry was between stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. After continually reading and re-reading these positive impressions for the past several months, my uncertainty turned into uncontrollable hype. Not only does the movie live up to the hype; it fast became my favorite piece of entertainment in 2016, which I previewed on HorrorGeekLife more than once.
Whiplash succeeded as a sum of all its parts. Not only did Chazelle shine through his directorial choices and witty writing, but employing J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller to bring life to those words made the film magnetic. There were many laughs and thought-provoking themes at play. I didn’t fully expect La La Land as an old school-feeling musical to touch on these notes, but lo and behold, it did completely. On top of that, Chazelle includes many homages to the golden age of Hollywood; paying tribute to the films that influenced Land, while keeping an eye on the future of cinema.
La La Land kicks off with a much-discussed continuous shot sequence (likely through tricky editing) with Los Angeles civilians stuck in traffic who opt for a song-and-dance while gridlocked. I cannot stress enough how utterly joy-inducing and intoxicating the music and color is in this film. You get a sense for both complimenting elements immediately. Also, if you’re a fan of the musicals in the golden age like West Side Story and Singin’ in the Rain, you’ll hear similar jazzy melodies in this number, titled “Another Day in the Sun.” Another ballsy part of the opener? It doesn’t even feature our two stars. It’s purely an establishment of the environment you’re about to live in for over 2 hours. Right after, we’re shown Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling) in their first interaction in said traffic, and we follow Mia during her day-in-the-life segment.
Mia is a struggling actress, which might be a cliche in films about L.A., but you look past it because Emma Stone is ruthlessly charming in every frame. You root for her through her highest high and lowest low. Fortunately, much of La La Land is Stone’s space to explore in, while Gosling acts as a commendable supporter. Mia just seems to be having a bad day when we meet her, as she spills coffee on her shirt before an audition that she proceeds to bomb. Stone’s multi-layered acting during the audition itself is a sight to behold. Mia digs deep to an emotional place in her monologue, but off-screen in the audience’s peripheral, we see someone flagging down a casting director to either obtain something or say hello. Regardless of the reason, this drives home how utterly awkward, robotic, and occasionally inhumane the L.A. audition process can be for an actor or actress who might be at their most vulnerable throughout their performance. Looking past the cynicism in Mia’s audition scene, there’s still a hopeful tone all around this picture that I’ll soon dissect.
After her bad day, the film cuts to Sebastian’s day, which isn’t much better. He’s a man passionate for jazz music and its potential revival, with a goal of opening a jazz club in his name. However, he’s pretty considerably far from this goal. Like Stone, Gosling is effortlessly likable despite Sebastian filling his head with such bloated, nearly-unattainable dreams. After a frank discussion about his future with his sister Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt), Sebastian heads to work to play standard (and timely) Christmas tunes on the piano to a restaurant full of customers that will hardly pay attention to him. J.K. Simmons returns to work with Chazelle, this time in a brief role as Seb’s hard-ass boss Bill, demanding that Sebastian stick to the bland sheet music and not veer off into improvised jazz land. Much of the humorous, clever dialogue lies in Sebastian and Bill’s communications, as well as Sebastian and Mia’s when we start exploring their relationship further.
That’s likely as spoiler-divulging I’d like to go, since there’s still a good 2 hours left of La La Land beyond these character introductions. My scene descriptions will never do justice to how beautifully lit, scored, directed, and acted these expositionary sequences are anyway. To further appreciate the casting, John Legend also nabs a supporting role as Keith, a former collaborating musician with Seb. However, the two amicably split ways before the time frame of the film, where Keith pursues a more popular strain of jazz music as Sebastian continues displaying his stubbornness in the traditional roots. This creates an interesting dynamic between the two, and Legend brings a legitimacy to the project as a talented musician in the real world himself.
To additionally hone in on the music, catchy melodies reside in practically every number. While the starting sequence was unforgettable and an achievement in filmmaking, simple and short tunes like “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” will sink their hooks in you just as easily as familiar songs like “City of Stars” or “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” both of which are featured in linked teaser trailers. The subtle instrumental pieces work just as effectively as the memorable, melodic choruses. Occasionally, these songs will pack an emotional punch, so prepare for unexpected tears if you’re vulnerable to it. What makes some of these numbers so impactful is the directing choices behind them. During one song (which involves spoilers I’m continuing to avoid), the camera stays steady on a character’s face in yet another unbroken shot while they move themselves (and us) to tears with their story via music.
Conversely, other musical moments simply exist to convey emotion by movement and sound yet without any singing. Periodically, these instrumentals convey joy through its wonderful choreography, reminiscent of Gene Kelly tap dancing routines from the familiar classics. They’ll also reveal anger as Seb sometimes bangs on his piano, rageful yet inspired at being held back by his relentless boss Bill. Then there’s another scene simply referred to as “Planetarium,” where dialogue and sound effects cease to exist, and La La Land becomes a silent movie tribute. I adore when directors challenge audiences to interpret certain relationships and interactions simply through visuals, especially when they’re considerably dreamlike like in this picture.
I’d love to expand upon specifics in regards to my love for La La Land, but they revolve around very revealing character evolutions. That shouldn’t stop anyone from feeling inspired to drop me a comment on social media so we can further discuss this unforgettable gem. Chazelle plainly shows his diverse chops in this much-acclaimed picture, planting eagerness in moviegoers to see what he’ll accomplish next in cinemas. What’s more immediately next in his future is plenty of Oscar trophies in his hands; particularly for Best Picture, Original Song, and likely Director. Is the film worth all the praise critics and award circuits are heaving on it? 1000% absolutely. I left the theater riding a wave of inspiration, as leaving Chazelle’s Land is at least guaranteed to do that: inspire.