Movie Review: “La La Land” is a joyous reminder of why we go to movies in the first place.

Nicholas Laskin
Dec 15, 2016 · 9 min read

The doozy of a sequence that kicks off Damien Chazelle’s propulsive new movie musical “La La Land” immediately lets us know what kind of film we’re in for. The camera starts at a slow crawl, tracking a lane of bumper-to-bumper traffic that brings to mind the infamous rubbernecking long take from Jean-Luc Godard’s avant-pop masterpiece “Weekend”. Before long, drivers start to emerge from their cars and soon, an entire freeway has exploded into a riotous mélange of song, dance, uncontrollable rhythm and visual splendor. This sequence alone sent the Cineramadome audience I saw the movie with bursting into rounds of spasmodic applause — all this before the title card went up!

“La La Land’s” breakneck opening salvo is only one of its most audacious and impressive feats, but Chazelle’s decision to begin the movie with this pleasurable eruption of sound and color is an intuitive one. The 31-year old director of “Whiplash” is wisely paying tributes to the splashy Technicolor classics of the genre — think MGM staples like “An American in Paris” or “Singin’ in the Rain” — so that he can brazenly chart his own idiosyncratic course. All the people talking about how classical and safe this movie is clearly aren’t looking at it hard enough.

I suppose “La La Land” could have been explicitly set in a certain retro period and it would still have been great. And yet, unlike Woody Allen’s recent “Café Society” — a mediocre movie that is intentionally set in the middle of this last American century, and is thus bound to Mr. Allen’s own arcane and outmoded way of looking at the world — “La La Land” is in fact a postmodern L.A. dream movie wearing the clothes of an old MGM musical. And wouldn’t you know, it wears them snappily, and with a breezy and intoxicating lack of affect.

Chazelle’s deft penchant for anachronism rears its head early on, where we see Emma Stone’s aspiring actress Mia Dolan running lines from a script behind the wheel of a Toyota Prius. It’s one of the film’s many clues that we certainly aren’t exactly stuck in 1954, although it’s probably the earliest one that the movie offers up. And yet, later on, Mia and surly jazz pianist Sebastian, or “Seb” (Ryan Gosling) go to see Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause” at Pasadena’s Rialto Theater: a once-great movie house that has long since been sold and is, like a great many L.A. landmarks, lost to the cruel and inevitable march of time.

“La La Land’s” dizzying conflation of eras is, like some of the characters Chazelle likes to portray in his movies, almost frightening in its ambition. While the film is every bit as sumptuous and wildly entertaining as you’ve been led to believe it is, “La La Land” also, somehow, proves itself to be an uncommonly deep and personal-feeling film about L.A.’s past, present and future. It’s a movie with a great deal to say about the promise that the city itself represents, as well as the often dire reality of living in a place whose legend is so dominated by the ghosts of its once-famous inhabitants. The film is an unabashedly romantic testament to the folly of dream chasing, a shining beacon to the immense talents of Chazelle, composer Justin Hurwitz and lead actors Gosling and Stone, and perhaps the year’s most moving romance. Is it one of the year’s best movies? You bet your tuchus it is.

Damien Chazelle came to the attention of the American moviegoing public with his weird and bracing debut “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench”. That film, like “La La Land,” was a love story about two creatives whose single-minded individual aspirations ultimately bled into their romantic relationship in ways they couldn’t anticipate. In many ways, Chazelle’s micro-budgeted debut now feels like a test run for this new one: his grandest effort to date. The Rhode Island-born director suddenly became a household name with the wild success of his anguished jazz drama “Whiplash,” which was my pick for one of the most overrated movies of the past decade. Don’t get me wrong: as a work of visual art, “Whiplash” is damn near flawless. Every frame contains layers of meaning, every sharp cut is timed perfectly with the furious hard bop of the movie’s soundtrack and the closing sequence is, admittedly, fucking fantastic.

And yet, the movie’s primary philosophy was one that I found to be not only repellent, but also phony. Sure, suffering and strife have historically led to the realization of great works of art across the creative spectrum. And yet, if we’re to take “Whiplash” at face value, the film seems to not only believe that malice and psychological manipulation are two of the catalysts upon which great art is based — it actually seems to advocate that these things are somehow necessary for creative growth. It didn’t help that the two actors at the center of the movie were acting with a capital A. Films as visually vibrant as “Whiplash” don’t benefit from scenery chewing — if anything, Chazelle’s second film could have used some understatement and modulation. The result was a movie that played its notes just fine, but dipped into overkill one too many times.

With “La La Land,” Chazelle foregoes everything that was problematic or irritating about the technically accomplished “Whiplash” and gives us his lavish, open-hearted and utterly brilliant love letter to the myth of the silver screen. How a mild-mannered music nerd from the East Coast has given us one of the greatest L.A. movies since the glory days of Paul Thomas Anderson is a mystery to me, but one thing is for sure: the sizzling-hot hype on this flick is no joke. “La La Land” is the rare film that lives up to and even surpasses the degree of buzz that surrounds it, through sheer verve and pizazz and an infectious love of filmmaking craft.

And yet, I must stress again, the film is no pastiche, though I’m sure words like “homage” and “throwback” will be used to describe it. Instead, “La La Land” is a film that inhabits the mold of the old-school movie musicals that Chazelle clearly adores, and yet operates with an unmistakably subversive agenda. When all’s said and done, “La La Land” is a thoroughly modern and heartbreaking story about the delicate dance of dreams and delusion that has, in many ways, fueled our great city for decades. The fact that Chazelle’s film is as much about the idea of what L.A. represents as it is about the city itself is only one of the things that makes it a modern-day Southern California classic.

At first, it’s jarring to hear actors burst into song and dance in the style of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classics of yesteryear. To his immeasurable credit, Chazelle eases us gently into the film’s very particular reality, all while maintaining a fearsome formalist emphasis on color palate, framing and repeated visual motifs. Stone, as I mentioned earlier, plays Mia Dolan: a visibly gifted and visibly struggling actress who seemingly can’t get through one audition without being interrupted by an intern. Mia ekes out a living as a barista in a café on the Warner Brothers lot, when she’s not at home writing plays and trading gossip with her roommates, whose outfits and hairstyles convinced me that Chazelle has seen Jacques Demy’s immaculate “The Young Girls of Rochefort” once or twice in his life.

Like Mia, Ryan Gosling’s Seb lives in the looming shadow cast by the titanic figures of a bygone time. He’s a self-proclaimed jazz purist who seems to regard poverty as a kind of nobility and makes ends meet by playing Christmas jingles in a depressing Samba and Tapas joint (“Samba and Tapas? Pick one!” is Seb’s priceless assessment of his work situation). As with many classic movie romances, it takes a while for Mia and Seb to come into each other’s orbit. Once they do, though, you are instantly reminded that Gosling and Stone are one of the most appealing and believable on-screen couples of our time. Stone in paritcular has a mousy, occasionally hyper-tense manner that only dissolves when her eyes and face expand and she projects a veritable reservoir of sadness. The “Birdman” actress has the soul of a classic screen siren, and she makes a winning foil to Mr. Gosling’s sleepy, low-key and seemingly effortless charm. A scene where Mia and Seb dance through the interior of the Griffith Observatory and literally waltz into the stars is one of the most purely magical movie moments you’ll see on a big screen this year — and believe me, this really is a movie you should see on the biggest screen you can find.

Of course, Mia and Seb fall for each other, all while never putting their own respective pursuits (a one-woman stage show for her, the prospect of opening up a jazz club for him) on the back burner. Alas, darkness and melancholy soon begins to cloud the movie’s bright, busy exterior. Chazelle displayed in “Whiplash” that he has a cinematic gift for conveying agitation and frustration with great acuity. Agitation and frustration are two emotions that dominate “La La Land’s” emotionally stormy second act, where Mia and Seb’s individual dreams threaten to undo what is fundamentally good about their relationship. When Gosling and Stone trade innuendo-laced patter in the movie’s early scenes, they hypnotize us with the ease of their rapport and the authenticity of their chemistry. And yet they somehow manage to sell the seams coming undone with the same level of grace. A look that Seb gives Mia in the movie’s devastating final moments is so achingly human, so laced with years of history and regret and intense understanding, that it says more than any line of dialogue ever could.

The film is laced with lively cameos and appearances from accomplished character actors and figures of the music world. Rosemarie DeWitt makes an impression in just a small handful of scenes as Seb’s pragmatic, level-headed sister and R&B singer John Legend owns a fantastic scene where he rightly puts Seb in his place for his pedantic insistence on the past as a kind of gospel. J.K. Simmons is typically irascible in that kind of J.K. Simmons way, returning to the Chazelle fold after “Whiplash” to play Seb’s short-tempered boss at the Samba and Tapas joint. Finn Wittrock of “The Big Short” is also funny and just plain weird in an appearance as a desperate, would-be suitor of Mia’s, though his scenes feel as though they’ve come from a slightly broader, less swooningly romantic movie.

But let’s face it: this film belongs to Gosling and Stone. I’m sure plenty of folks will see the film without full knowledge of Chazelle’s many reference points and simply enjoy it as a showcase for the gifts of these two indispensable performers. Gosling, in particular, has rarely been better. Don’t get me wrong: Stone is dynamite, and she communicates Mia’s quietly crumbling sense of self-worth with a light touch that blew me away. What Gosling does in this film, though, is step into the shoes of the great studio leading men of yore: guys who could act, sing, dance, cut a rug with the ladies, throw a punch with the guys and make it look easy. And wouldn’t you know, Gosling makes the whole thing look like a piece of cake. He sells Seb’s sense of narrow-minded artistic superiority, but Gosling himself is no sap, and he shows up as an actor in the film’s final two acts perhaps more than he has since the days of “Half Nelson” and “The Believer”. The fact that he did this and also the fevered goofball lunacy of Shane Black’s “The Nice Guys” in the same year is unthinkable.

The real star of “La La Land,” however, isn’t Gosling, nor is it Stone, or Chazelle or the ghosts of MGM musicals or the city of Los Angeles itself. No, the star of the film, of course, is the music. Justin Hurwitz’s original compositions are some of the most memorable pieces of movie music to be heard in years. In particular, I found myself crooning along to the Gosling/Stone duet “City of Stars” on the way home from the movie. It’s a doe-eyed ditty and a jazzy lament for connection in a disconnected, sprawling metropolis, though I suspect some viewers may respond this way to “Another Day of Sun,” the unapologetically big number that opens the movie with so much razzle-dazzle. It’s an overused turn of phrase, but through grit and pluck and intuition, Damien Chazelle has somehow managed to turn “La La Land” into pure cinema: a marriage of sound, image and song that simply could not exist in another medium. At the end of this god-awful year, perhaps we need a reminder of why we go to the movies in the first place. “La La Land” is that reminder. Grade: A.

Nicholas Laskin

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Movie and T.V. Reviews

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