A reputation of Los Angeles is that it is the city where foolish dreamers go to come face to face with harsh reality. In the pre-credit sequence of La La Land, we are shown a bumper to bumper traffic jam, then the music starts and the commuters are now getting out of their cars, singing and dancing making the best of a lousy situation. A 1940’s style carefree fantasy meets with the reality of modern annoyance. This is the glitz, glamour, and misfortune which makes up La La Land.
La La Land is the story of two people who came to Los Angeles because they have a dream. Emma Stone plays Mia, a girl from a small town who wants nothing more than to become a big time actress, and Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist who has lived in L.A. his whole life and wants to start his own club so he can give the music he loves a resurgence in a world that has forgotten it for the most part. The two meet and eventually fall in love, though it’s more obvious to everyone else, audience most certainly included, that they already love each other before they themselves realize it. If this sounds familiar, it is meant to. The brilliance of La La Land is not that it gives you an obviously brand new story the likes of which you’ve never seen before, but that it gives you an age old, well worn story with a twist that makes all the difference in the message it wants to say. The 1940’s story and tropes mixed with a story taking place in the modern era is more than just a stylistic decision, it’s a metaphor.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are two of my favorite younger working actors in Hollywood today, and I loved them both in this movie. While Gosling gives an excellent performance and his electrifying chemistry with Stone is what makes the movie work, Stone’s performance is a true tour-de-force. Her multi-layered performance makes the fantastic realistic and the surreal grounded. When I say La La Land combines both the dreams and the reality the city is known for perfectly, a huge part of that combination realizes itself in Stone’s nearly perfect performance. Even when her voice occasionally isn’t entirely up to snuff in a few of her more difficult songs, you think that it is more a choice than a weakness, that a break in her voice isn’t a mistake so much as a decision to have her character let her guard down for just a moment. For his part, Gosling is also excellent, and he learned piano for this movie, and when I say learned I don’t mean he can plunk out a few notes to get through a scene, he gives some virtuoso level performances here.
The music and the musical numbers, of course, have to be talked about. What we are given continues the metaphor impeccably, the jazz music and Fred Astaire style numbers mixed with modern settings, dance moves, and singing styles work on every level and elevate what was in danger of being cornball to gloriously creative, catchy, and invigorating. Even the methods of breaking into song bring a new spin on the old, as occasionally, such as in the above mentioned opening scene, the characters do just break into a song and dance number out of nowhere, but sometimes the more modern technique of naturally breaking into song since many of our characters are musicians by profession is the method of getting into a musical number. Both methods work, neither seems out of place, and this is a huge credit to director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) for being able to pull not only this tough balancing act off, but the balancing act which is this entire movie.
The art direction and camera work in La La Land just add to the many other already impeccable elements in this film. Linus Sandgren, the director of cinematography, captures the city, the stars, and the action at their most beautiful and gives us a true glamour piece while never forgetting that the movie is self aware enough to know that the glamour can be very much illusion and knows when to let the feeling that what we are watching is not altogether real sneak through at just the right times. Classic musical filming techniques are largely on display here, but we also see some very stylized modern camera work, and a bit of what can only be described as live stage performance visuals, the camera doing what it can to capture what it would be like to be seeing this story in person. All of this works, all is subtle, and most of all it all work to enhance the emotional core of what makes La La Land such an experience.
La La Land is not only a masterpiece, not only one of the best movies of the year, but it is one of the greatest love stories to Hollywood ever captured because it’s not just about Hollywood, but the entire human experience and one of the greatest musicals ever made. The core of the movie is emotion, and you will run the entire of gamut throughout this movie. You will be thrilled, joyous, awed, and you will have your heart stomped and beaten at times, as well. But, once you are done with the emotional experience, you will also see that this was an incredibly smart and intellectual movie as well. What La La Land has to say about chasing dreams is unlike what any other film before it has had to say, and the message is at once optimistic and grounding. I recommend this film to absolutely everyone. If you are the type who says they hate musicals, see this anyway, after La La Land you can then say you hate musicals except for this one. It really is that spectacular that it will make converts.
Rating: 9.6 out of 10