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Non-Review Review: La La Land

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.

Song and dance about it.

Song and dance about it.

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.

All that jazz...

All that jazz…

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.

City of stars.

City of stars.

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.

"Hey, dame."

“Hey, dame.”

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.

L.A. Story.

L.A. Story.

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.

Reflections.

Reflections.

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.

Setting the soundstage.

Setting the soundstage.

La La Land is a wondrous celebration of cinema as an artform, a loving tribute to classic movies with an infectious romantic streak.

 

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10 Responses

  1. Really looking forward to this. I really think Emma Stone is the best actress of her (also my) generation. Plus on a shallow note she’s gorgeous.

    I never used to like Ryan Gosling but he was great in ‘The Nice Guys’ so I’m happy to see him in this.

    • I have a friend who underwent a similar conversion when it comes to Mister Gosling. It was The Nice Guys and The Big Short that led to his Gosling-related softening. That said, I’m also a big Emma Stone fan, and have been dating back to Easy A.

  2. I saw La La Land at a film festival, and absolutely loved it. I had been waiting for it for a longtime, but it exceeded my expectations.

  3. What a beautiful movie La La Land was, I had high expectations and it crossed even the hype. A perfect movie and a nod to the life and world of LA

    here, check my review of La La Land too, I am a new blogger šŸ™‚
    http://www.filmicsite.com/2016/12/10/la-la-land-emma-stone-ryan-gosling-review-dir-damien-chazelle/

  4. There is a take on this film that seems underrepresented and that many people saw the film, particularly the ending, as sad. I disagree but I wasn’t too surprised by that take. I think that what the movie gets right, like Midnight in Paris, is that ultimately we have to make and live with our choices. What this film adds to that, from my view, is that just because a different choice would have led to a good outcome, doesn’t mean the choice was wrong. There can be more than one good outcome. Having one over another isn’t sad. It might be bittersweet, but it’s life.

    I would also add Magnolia to films about lives intersecting in Los Angeles.

    • Yep, good spot about Magnolia. It is a fascinating recurring theme of films about the city, and a large part of what I think about when I see it. I also like the metaphorical value of the valleys and the hills as they relate to the city.

  5. I have to respectfully disagree with you when it comes to this film. I did not really like it. The opening song was pointless and did little to the scene and establish characters. I didn’t like the rest of the singing and none of the songs were particularly memorable. I also didn’t like how the characters accomplished all their goals during a five year time skip, which left me highly annoyed. The thing that ticked me off me the most was the bittersweet ending though. There was no reason understand why Emma Stone’s character and Ryan Gosling’s character didn’t get together. Yes, she was married, but she is a movie star. They get divorced all the time, but the film was treating it as if she were some 19th century bride.

    I will admit that the film was gorgeous to look at it, and was exquisitely acted by Emma Stone. I might not have liked the final scene, but I admit that the actors involved did an excellent job.

    • The opening song, I think very much establishes theme.

      In that it’s about giving up the comfort and security of home to pursue a dream, something that Mia does over the course of the film. It’s also an ode to Los Angeles as an idea rather than a physical place, which is a nice recurring theme of many stories about the city and one particularly relevant to a film about the intersection of dreams and reality.

      I think that the bittersweet ending is entirely on Sebastian. As the end dream sequence shows, they have jazz in Paris. Mia imagines him playing in Paris, and havign a great time. He could easily have gone with her and given up on his jazz club, or at least compromised a little bit. After all, Mia is shown to be much more willing to compromise and improvise than Sebastian, right down to pointing out that his club doesn’t need to be exactly where he wants it to be and pointing out that his clever name is going to alienate casual clubgoers.

      (He does take both suggestions on board, but it still feels like Sebastian simply isn’t willing or able to compromise. It seems like joining John Legend’s band almost killed him. I don’t think that Sebastian’s ending is meant to seem in any way as fulfilling as Mia’s, despite the fact that he gets what he wants with a minimum amount of compromise.)

      I think the fact that Sebastian could very easily have kept up the relationship with Mia, but it wasn’t in his nature, is tragic and powerful. And, based on my own experience of relationships, entirely true to how people interact. Compromise is much harder for people than it really should be.

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