La La Land is a beautiful piece of work, a film destined to leave the audience smiling and humming.
Damien Chazelle constructs an affectionate and old fashioned ode to Hollywood, to the magic of movies in particular and art in general. La La Land is a romance in just about every sense of the word, a tale of two young lovers chasing their dreams in the City of Angel with little more than the belief that they might one day find contentment and fulfilment. The result is a joyous celebration of film and music, a loving tribute to its emotive and transformative power that refuses to buckle beneath the demands of cynicism.
La La Land is endearing in its optimism, its embrace of musical fantasia and its belief in Los Angeles as a place where everyone can chase their dreams… and sometimes, if they’re lucky, those dreams might come true. It is an unapologetically romantic look at Tinseltown, one that could easily be dismissed as trite. Indeed, the most stinging criticism of the film is the most obvious; that La La Land is a movie that runs the risk of cruising to a Best Picture win by virtue of being a film by Hollywood about the romance of Hollywood. Argo and The Artist redux.
La La Land is very much aware of that criticism. And it does not care. “You say romantic like it’s a bad word,” complains soulful jazz pianist Sebastian at one point early at the film. It seems like the characters in La La Land refuse to live in a world smothered by cynicism and suffocated by self-awareness. Luckily enough, La La Land has little time for such vice and commits wholeheartedly to its dreamscape. If romance is a bad word, La La Land doesn’t even blush.
La La Land is steeped in nostalgia. At one point, Mia asks Sebastian to read her script. “It’s kind of nostalgic,” he reflects, somehow oblivious to the nostalgia that permeates the film around him. Mia hesitates, having seemingly missed the fact that bulk of major box office successes seem to be driven by that emotion. “Do people like nostalgia?” she wonders, caught in a moment of self-doubt. There is something surprisingly earnest in that frank exchange, as if La La Land has detached itself from the economics of the movie landscape it so lovingly explores.
La La Land plays like an old-fashioned musical, the oft-cited kind they do not make anymore. There are impressively choreographed dance sequences featuring dozens of performers. There is no justification or excuse for the cast spontaneously breaking into song. Scenes transition through lingering iris wipes, small circles of light breaking out on a pitch black screen. Early in the film, a montage features a collage of neon nightclub stands. The climax features an impressive extended studio dance number that evokes classic musicals like An American in Paris.
Even the film itself lovingly celebrates cinematic history. Mia and Sebastian go on a night out to an old fashioned movie house to see Rebel Without a Cause, before escaping to Griffith Observatory to recreate a sequence from the film. Mia’s second encounter with Sebastian finds him playing at an old piano bar, right next to an impressive mural featuring classic Hollywood legends. Sebastian is fixated upon the history of jazz, literally stalking an old jazz club and preserving relics of a forgotten age. Mia works on the Warners Lot, opposite the window from Casablanca.
Part of the charm of La La Land lies in the juxtaposition of this old-school nostalgia with more modern elements. There is a fascinating juxtaposition of old and new to be found in La La Land. The characters all use modern mobile phones. Mia drives a Prius. The impressive opening dance sequence unfolds on a modern Los Angeles freeway. Mia finds herself auditioning for a show that is “Dangerous Minds meets The O.C.“, while her third encounter with Sebastian finds him covering cheesy eighties classics like I Ran.
La La Land is inherently suspicious of certain aspects of modern culture. At one point, Sebastian finds himself forced to compromise and join a modern soft rock group in the style of Maroon 5 or Coldplay, a decision that the movie makes clear is not in his own best interest. However, La La Land never seems to panic in the face of change or evolution. It never clings too grouchily to the past. Instead, it seeks to integrate the old and the new in a way that compliments both.
La La Land is an ode to Los Angeles, very much capturing the tone and mood of the city. There is a sense of Los Angeles of a world of overlapping and intertwined narratives, an urban sprawl of characters whose trajectories bring them into contact with one another despite the anomie of big city living. Los Angeles seems almost magical in the way that it brings Mia and Sebastian together, two anonymous souls in a vast city who cross paths three times before even engaging in a conversation with one another.
Then again, this is part of the cultural mythology of Los Angeles. If New York is the city that never sleeps, then Los Angeles is the city that never stops dreaming. Mia and Sebastian seem almost guided by the city towards one another, an odd intersection of coinciding travel arrangements, a fortuitous route home, and attending the right party. This is very much a heightened version of Los Angeles presented in films as diverse as Short Cuts, Heat and Pulp Fiction. Los Angeles is a place where all stories intersect.
La La Land looks beautiful. Director Damien Chazelle attracted attention for his work on Whiplash, a very raw and powerful little film with more than a slight hint of Hitchcock. Where Whiplash concealed that stylistic influence through a grounded setting and a modest scope, La La Land is a very evocative and stylised film. It plays as an extended tribute to the movie-making sensibilities of old Hollywood, with Chazell embracing all manner of stylistic techniques (from scene transitions to model work to animation) that are rarely flaunted these days.
Chazelle’s real skill lies in his willingness to let the movie’s stylistic flourishes speak for themselves, adopting a very confident and effective directorial technique that never distracts attention from the infectious movement or the vibrant colours on screen. La La Land is populated with impressive long takes and tracking shots, but seldom in ways that call attention to themselves. Chazelle is so comfortable and confident in his abilities that La La Land never allows its more impressive technical accomplishments to distract from the wonder on screen.
Of course, it helps that the screen is constantly filled with breathtaking imagery. The look and feel of La La Land is simply magnificent, from Linus Sandgren’s vivid cinematography to Mary Zophres’ costume design to David Wasco’s production design. Almost every frame of the film is stunning, populated with rich colours and bright imagery that threaten pop off the screen. It helps that La La Land is anchored by two winning performances. Ryan Gosling is great as Sebastian, but Emma Stone is simply amazing as Mia.
La La Land is a wondrous celebration of cinema as an artform, a loving tribute to classic movies with an infectious romantic streak.