MOVIE REVIEW: “La La Land”

(Image by Dale Robinette for Lionsgate Pictures via EPK.tv)

52nd Chicago International Film Festival Opening Night Special Presentation

“LA LA LAND”

5 STARS

Do you ever have that feeling watching some vintage-loving hipster Millennial don some imitation fedora, shake up some old fashion, or pull out a vinyl record player and it all looks so unnatural, forced, and even fake. You give them credit for educating themselves on something classical rather than contemporary, but you can tell they are missing the essence of the nostalgia. They don’t “get” what makes what they are emulating special or great. “La La Land” is 128 minutes of those moments that feel the complete opposite. It sticks the landing, shuts the front door, drops the mic, and simply nails the “it” over and over again.

In front of and behind the camera, you will find creative people that deftly understand and properly tap into the spirit and flavor of the classic genres and eras they are blending. Breathing jazzy life into a Hollywood musical set in the present day of Priuses and iPhones, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to “Whiplash” is a modern cinematic treasure. It is the kind of film where you will remember where you were when you first saw it. You will not find a more jubilant, romanticized, or flat-out entertaining film this year.

Opening with the colossal single-take musical number entitled “Another Day of Sun” enlivening an Los Angeles traffic jam to first cross the stars of our two lovers, “La La Land” flies out of the gate in perfect stride to manifest the Hollywood musical. Combining modern bells and whistles with a throwback approach and appreciation, you realize that you are not watching wannabes or hacks. Titled as a love letter to Los Angeles and a full admission ticket to daydreaming away from reality, “La La Land” pitches delightful whimsy with unexpected heft and dramatic power underneath.

Emma Stone is Mia, a lowly barista and afterthought at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. studio lot. Chasing dreams of stardom, she left Boulder City, Nevada years ago to give her all to the bright lights and big city. Like thousands of aspiring ingenues in town, Mia chases auditions and callbacks in hopes of a big break. Parallel to her is Sebastian in his ever-present wing-tip oxfords, played by Ryan Gosling. He is an unabashed lover of classic jazz and an accomplished pianist. Seb languishes playing restaurant background music and party gigs while dreaming of opening his own jazz club. The two intersect and gravitate to the zeal they each outwardly wear on their sleeves.

Mia and Sebastian move in together and weather the ups and downs of their career attempts while finding inspiring energy to carry on. When a door opens for Sebastian to play on tour behind Keith (John Legend), an old classmate of differing tastes than his own who has scored a record deal, he takes the job for the money and stability. His time away gives Mia openness to pursue writing and staging her own one-woman play. Sebastian’s time commitments mildly push Mia to the sidelines, as does her own despondency, presenting obstacles for their blossoming relationship over the course of a year.

“La La Land” dances us through their whirlwind courtship and shared journey with performances of brilliant artistry and flair. Showcasing more of the sexy chemistry they started five years ago in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.,” Gosling and Stone are a match made in cinematic heaven. Both show off marvelous never-before-seen talents, her on the mic and him on the keys, while they sing and dance through real-life locations capable of morphing into highlighted dreamscapes. “La La Land” stands as new breakthrough film for both actors, especially for Stone. No longer can you look at her as simply the plucky girl. This is leading lady territory. Emma is the true empathetic core of this beautiful and bittersweet story.

The merger of technical prowess and aesthetic elegance on display is extraordinarily alluring on every level. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren bathes David Wasco’s savvy production design and Mary Zophres’s rainbow of hued costumes with unreal combinations of natural light, perfect skies, and choreographed spotlights emanating from unseen edges to seamlessly shift a scene from the real to the surreal. Everything pops and washes over you with absolute delight. This film could be on mute and you would still be dazzled by every intoxicating twinkle.

Luckily, that’s never the case. Composer and orchestrator Justin Hurwitz exceeds his previous work on “Whiplash” to further venerate the genre of jazz. Even non-fans of musicals or jazz stand to be impressed by punchy energy and effervescent appeal of competing high excitement and lowered reflection. Hurwitz’s music has the equal ability to haunt and swoon. The soundtrack of catchy songs and its poignant underscore backing enrapture you in every moment during the film and will go on to vivify your tapping toes and snapping fingers for days afterwards.

This enigmatic witch’s brew of everything wondrously possible from the meeting of the mediums of cinema and music all boils down to the work of writer and director Damien Chazelle. Drawing from influences as far ranging as Gene Kelly to “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (see my primer sidepiece), Chazelle has topped the ferociousness of “Whiplash” with the triumphant showmanship of “La La Land.” None of this film’s muscle movements and soaring style work without passionate blood racing through its celluloid veins. Chazelle gets it and it charms us with every frame.

LESSON #1: THE WAVERING PERSEVERANCE OF THE STRUGGLING ARTIST — People like Sebastian and Mia brim with wanton desire to create and express themselves. They face more rejection than success and feel the pressure to mature to find a more profitable career. Struggling artists encounter several tipping points, whether they acknowledge them or not, that either push them to quit their pursuit or strengthen their resolve to achieve.

LESSON #2: THE COMPETITION BETWEEN PERSONAL LOVES AND ROMANTIC LOVES — Love and careers don’t always mix. It’s wonderful for someone to have a partner in their life and also a profession or role they are passionate about. Often, there is not enough time or energy to commit or dedicate oneself fully to both. It can become a choice of which success you have to settle for or, trickier, who receives it.

LESSON #3: FANTASIES RARELY BECOME REALITY — To loop the lessons together, people envision fantasies in both their personal and professional lives throughout their lives. When someone starts a new job, they picture themselves being the best and most unencumbered at what they do in the same way a new spouse promises to be the best possible man or woman in the world. “La La Land” plays those flights of fancy and big dreams out on screen with all of the woulda-coulda-shouldas in between. Both in the film and in our own lives, reality swoops in to remind us of the world’s limits and our own flaws and shortcomings.

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