‘La La Land:’ Movie Review

I’ve never quite understood the aversion many people have to film musicals (or stage musicals for that matter).  One of the biggest reasons people give for going to the movies in the first place is a desire for escapism from everyday life.  The movie business boomed during the Great Depression, as people wanted a retreat from the hardships of that era.  What could be more escapist than people bursting into spontaneous song and dance numbers accompanied by an invisible orchestra?  Yet the same people who revel in the unreality of Star Wars, people who will literally go out in public dressed as aliens, reject the unreality of a musical.  It makes no sense to me.  For whatever reason, audiences seem more inclined to accept musical numbers in animated films but not live action.  (Incidentally, “How Far I’ll Go” from the recent Moana is a pretty good example of a song that informs both her character and advances the plot of the film.)  Even one of the most successful musicals form the past 15 years, Bill Condon’s Chicago, worked to hide the production numbers and, in a way, apologize for them – they all took place in Roxie Hart’s imagination and not in the real life of the film. 

It’s sad so many people feel this way about musicals.  They are missing out on so much joy.  Musicals are pure cinema.  There are few things as delightful to me as the “Moses Supposes” number from Singin’ in the Rain.  Few actions films pull off something quite as thrilling as the “Tango Roxanne” sequence from Moulin Rouge.  I’m not a big fan of the film version, but few things have moved me emotionally as much as Les Miserables, and even that uneven movie got me weepy a couple of times on the sheer strength of the source material.

Add to the list of thrilling movie musicals Damien Chazelle’s La La Land.  Most musicals that get made today are based on hit Broadway shows. La La Land is one of the best and only original film musicals since the South Park movie.  It’s also one of the very best movies of 2016.  Skip it at your peril.

The film opens spectacularly with a six-minute production number set on the 110 freeway in gridlocked traffic.  While drivers get out of their cars and sing and dance, the action is captured in what appears to be one single take.  The opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” is worth the price of admission all on its own.

In the traffic jam we are introduced to Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), drivers in separate cars who seem destined to meet.  Mia is a struggling actress working as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot.  Sebastian is a devoted jazz pianist making ends meet by playing elevator music in dinner clubs.  If you’ve seen a movie before, you know these two are going to meet and fall in love.

Like the recent Netflix Gilmore Girls revival, La La Land plays out over a year in segments named after the four seasons, plus an epilogue that ends the film in a truly spellbinding 10 minutes.  There is hardly any plot to speak of, wish is perfectly all right.  We get the trials of how making art affects the relationship of these two ridiculously good-looking people.  Mia writes a one-woman show after a series of dehumanizing auditions.  Sebastian has his musical Puritanism tested when he takes a successful gig as the keyboard player in a combo that fuses jazz and hip hop.

After the one-two combination of Whiplash and now this, if I ran one of the studios (and I don’t) I would immediately sign Damien Chazelle to a long-term contract similar to the one Louis CK had with the FX network.  If it comes in under a certain budget, he could have creative control to do anything he wants as far as I’m concerned.  He is one of the most exciting young filmmakers working today.

Calling La La Land a masterpiece of tone is an understatement.  It’s a film so fragile that in the wrong hands it could have gone horribly wrong at any second.  The film is beautiful to look at, colorful and vibrant, and the musical numbers are staged almost as if they could occur in real life.  Almost.  Neither Stone nor Gosling has the ability to belt a show tune like Ethel Merman, but their voices work perfectly in the aesthetic that these eruptions of song and dance are just shy of really happening.  There’s a jaw-dopping sequence midway through the film where they float through the stars at the Griffith Park Observatory.  It’s simply magical.  The whole film is one long, beautiful magic trick.

Credit must be given to the cinematographer Linus Sandgren and production designer David Wasco.  Both do awards-caliber work.  Los Angeles has never looked lovelier, even in freeway gridlock.  This is a movie that looks amazing, and its use of theatrical lighting is extraordinary.  There’s a “what if” segment near the end of the film that reminded me in the best way of the Gene Kelly/Cyd Charisse “Broadway Melody Ballet” piece in Singin’ in the Rain.  It’s show-stopping work by everybody. I would be remiss not the mention the songs are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (whose Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen, just opened a few days ago to rave reviews) and composer Justin Hurwitz.

Finally, there are the two leads, who effortlessly radiate movie star wattage cranked up to 11.  Stone gets a solo in the third act that brings the house down in its own quiet way.  Between this movie and The Nice Guys, Gosling has had a pretty great 2016.  I hope they make 100 movies together.

La La Land is a dream of a movie that’s, at its core, about not giving up on your own dreams.  It’s a special picture that reminds us why the movies inspired so many of us in the first place.  It’s easily one of the best films of the year, and I feel like I’m underselling it.


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