La La Land (2016)

  • Time: 126 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Drama | Musical
  • Director: Damien Chazelle
  • Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, J.K. Simmons, Rosemarie DeWitt


Mia, an aspiring actress, serves lattes to movie stars in between auditions and Sebastian, a jazz musician, scrapes by playing cocktail party gigs in dingy bars, but as success mounts they are faced with decisions that begin to fray the fragile fabric of their love affair, and the dreams they worked so hard to maintain in each other threaten to rip them apart.


  • Rhapsodic. Rapturous. Magical. Dazzling. Masterpiece. These are the words one wishes to ascribe to La La Land, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s colour-drenched musical valentine to Hollywood, its dreaming denizens, and the moviegoers who wish to be swept away and lose themselves in the power of those celluloid images. And yet…those words don’t wholly apply. For a film whose intentions are so well-defined, its very rigour exposes its artifice, resulting in a jumbled shallowness that it never truly overcomes.

    Set in contemporary Los Angeles but very much anchored in the past, the film wastes no time in staging a musical number, one that finds drivers stuck on a typically congested freeway during another hot day breaking out into a song and dance that finds the dancers twirling, leaping and turning between and atop cars as cinematographer Linus Sandgren captures it all in one long take. For all its exuberance, however, this piece already features the problem that pervades all of La La Land’s musical numbers – the joy it emits isn’t borne out of spontaneity. It feels too manufactured, too rehearsed, the choreography is so pronounced that could probably count off the beats, if one were so inclined.

    The sequence does end on a comic note. The people may have been singing and dancing about “Another Day of Sun” but, as the title card notes, it is wintertime in Los Angeles and Chazelle introduces us to two particular people on that freeway. One is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist raging against the dying of jazz’s light. He’s not one for compromise or even listening – so apostolic is he in his worship of free jazz that he barely tolerates his employer’s demands to adhere to the set list. Gosling in recent years has refined one of the best deadpan mugs – he may not be on par with Buster Keaton, but he’s certainly hovering in the vicinity – and one of the few genuine pleasures to be found in La La Land is to see the expression of murderous tolerance on Sebastian’s face as he’s forced to perform Christmas standards for an inattentive crowd or, horror of horrors, be a synth keyboardist for an Eighties cover band. His ultimate dream is to open up a jazz club, one where musicians can play whatever they want, however they want – forget about kowtowing to commercialist demands.

    The other figure of note on that freeway is Mia, an aspiring actress working as a barista in a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot in between round after round of dispiriting auditions. She’s a star waiting to be born, a state no longer applicable to the saucer-eyed Stone whose combination of verve, moxie and melancholy recalls Shirley MacLaine. Stone is so emotionally expressive that she almost makes one forget that Mia is less a character than a symbol of a passionate striver living in a town that practically draws its existence on crushing the life out of such people.

    Of course, Sebastian and Mia are perfect for one another and, for a time, it’s engaging to observe them falling in love and eventually becoming mired in the darker realities of their ambitions. Chazelle provides them with moments that read as swoon-worthy on the page: the push-and-pull courtship under the streetlights that plainly references Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s “Strangers in the Night” pas de deux from The Band Wagon; a waltz in the Griffith Observatory that finds the couple literally amongst the planetarium’s stars. And yet…these sequences never truly soar. In many respects, the film works best when it loosens its tether on its inspirations and uses those inspirations as a springboard rather than a rigid template. The portion of the film that finds the couple’s romance threatened by Sebastian’s rise as a member of a jazz-pop band called The Messengers is nearly wordless, the structure giving itself almost entirely to freeform.

    Best of all is a number set during the film’s coda, a lavish set piece that encapsulates everything that has unfolded in the past two hours in one perfect musical sequence that marries the big-scale musical stylings of a Vincente Minnelli to the bittersweet wistfulness of a Jacques Demy. It’s a moment that has an actual release and one wishes that there were more such moments throughout the film. One has to applaud Chazelle for his efforts even if the work itself is ultimately disappointing.

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  • (RATING: ☆☆☆☆½ out of 5)


    IN BRIEF: An enchanting old fashioned modern day love letter to the great Hollywood musicals of yesteryear.

    GRADE: A-

    SYNOPSIS: Set in modern day LA, two dreamers sing, dance, and fall in love.

    JIM’S REVIEW: Who says they don’t make movies like they use to? Damien Chazelle’s La La Land restores one’s fate in the creative process and modern day filmmaking. A daring and thrilling project, the film is a simple boy meets girl tale, set in Tinseltown, that harks back to the kind of musical that MGM would churn out regularly in days of yore. This homage to the old Hollywood musical is simply a class act all the way. (And boy, do we need it now!)

    They meet cute, these star-crossed lovers, caught in a traffic jam, one that begins our story with such skill and exuberance. This unexpected opening dance number efficiently sets the right tone for the film, mixing realism with musical fantasy. (Special kudos to Mandy Moore’s spellbinding choreography. Her opening number, Another Day of Sun, is a stunner and the camera angles swoop and spin with such fluidity, as do the dancers. Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls from Rochefort is its direct inspiration…and there will be other musical salutes throughout the film.)

    Of course, we know the two will eventually get together against all odds, singing and dancing their way into your heart. Mia (Emma Stone), an out-of-work actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist, have destiny guiding their every move (and fortunately Mr. Chazelle doing the same).

    The songs by Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are clever, moving, and highly memorable. They bring with them the necessary range of emotion that advance the plot so effortlessly: bittersweet moments, love and heartbreak, dreamy romance. (The haunting love theme, City of Stars, and Ms. Stone’s 11 o’clock number, The Audition (The Fools Who Dream), are two unforgettable highlights, as is the closing number, a pastiche that shows what could have been and tips its hat to such films as An American in Paris, Casablanca, Roman Holiday, and Singin’ in the Rain. Yes, this is a movie that will cause one to swoon. Another musical interlude directly refers to the film Rebel Without a Cause in its plot and setting.

    The screenplay, also by Mr. Chazelle, takes our two lovers on a journey that confronts life’s on-going question about love, relationships, and art. It literally sweeps you off your feet and send you into space with a sense of giddy nostalgia and joyous surprise. Yes, the plot is paper thin. Some of the musical numbers seem forced and do not blend with the reality surrounding our lovers. Yet, the overall effect is still captivating.

    The core to the movies’ success or failure is firmly in control due to the performances of the two lead actors. Both Ms. Stone and Mr. Gosling have shown that they have a strong chemistry together in other films, but here, it is so crucial to the film that we buy into their romance. (Some may not. I did totally. Call me a romantic.) While Ms. Stone’s and Mr. Gosling’s musical talents are limited and rarely come near the superior footwork of Astaire, Rogers, Charisse, or Kelly, the two actors are more than competent and quite charming in their roles. They compensate with their strong dramatic acting choices that impress and emotionally involve the moviegoing audience.

    Mr. Chazelle stages his scenes with flair and style. He transitions from dramatic scenes into musical numbers with ease. The physical production dazzles with its Technicolor dreamscape of pulsating candy-colored hues. Linus Sandren’s cinematography is gorgeous and the production design by David Waco uses the old time movie sets to create the artificial world of movie musicals. (I particularly loved A Lovely Night, a tribute to the Dancing in the Dark sequence from The Bandwagon, complete with lamppost.)

    La La Land honors the lavish Hollywood musicals of the past, those rare breed of movies that became extinct as moviegoers’ tastes changed and the studio system died. Let us hope this film brings about a renaissance of sorts. La La Land is a film about love and made with love. It is a exhilarating cinematic experience not to be missed!

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  • I didn’t get to see La La Land as soon as I would have liked which is really too bad. I might have been able to see it twice by now. This movie is great. It’s a rom/com, a musical, and more. It has classic MGM musical sensibilities but modern characters and situations.
    Writer director Damien Chazelle proves me wrong again by having a tight script telling a good story with some modern twists we would never have seen in the old MGM musicals. Justin Hurwitz’s music and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s lyrics are very nice and fit well with the characters and situations.
    Speaking of the characters, there are only two who really count, Ryan Gosling’s Sabastian and Emma Stone’s Mia. Stone sings with a breathy voice which is fine for movies since she doesn’t have to project to the balcony. She acts the songs very well, selling their content and making them work. Gosling has a stronger voice and accompanies himself. He’s not faking when he plays the piano. He can play and plays well. Both of them do a very good job of dancing, including tap.
    I thoroughly enjoyed this bitter/sweet movie and give it 5 traffic jams out of 5. I don’t see a resurgence of movie musicals that aren’t based on Broadway shows but this one is good and I wouldn’t mind seeing one or two original movie musicals each year.

  • “This is the dream! It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting!”

    La La Land’s ode to old Hollywood has re-ignited our love affair with musicals and the magic seldom seen on screen, but while this movie reminds me why I love classics of yesteryear, it’s respectful homage is also a reminder that it will never match those classics it honors.

    Bogart and Bacall. Tracy and Hepburn. Stone and Gosling? I can’t quite stomach the idea of the latter couple on the same pedestal as the power couples of the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema, but La La Land desperately wants you to believe that Stone and Gosling are the 21st century golden couple.

    With a massive 12 nominations from the Critics Choice Awards, La La Land is proving to be the movie to beat this year as critics hail it “the years best” and “an instant classic,” but Ryan Gosling tap dancing around a light pole at dusk doesn’t make him Gene Kelly.

    Writer and director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his breakout film Whiplash (nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, and won three, for editing, sound mixing and J.K. Simmons as Supporting Actor) once again focuses on music and performances, but this film is strikingly different from Whiplash.

    La La Land follows Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist, who falls for aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) in Los Angeles. Chazelle’s love letter to the city of Los Angeles is not sugar-coated as one may expect, but is a more realistic portrait of the challenging reality of what it takes to make it in Tinseltown.

    Chazelle admits that both films reflect his own experiences as a film-maker working his way up the Hollywood ladder.

    “There’s something to be said for having even unrealistic dreams. Even if the dreams don’t come true – that to me is what’s beautiful about Los Angeles. It’s full of these people who have moved there to chase these dreams. A lot of those people are told by people around them that they’re crazy, or that they’re living in la la land. I wanted to make a movie that saluted them a little bit, and that kind of unrealistic state of mind.”

    “Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem. Here’s to the hearts that ache. Here’s to the mess we make,” sings Emma Stone’s character at an audition. Jazz, dreams, musical scenes and an ode to Hollywood wrapped into a two hour film is a dream film for the Academy.

    As Chazelle explains, this is a film for those who love movies, the arts, music, Los Angeles, musicals. And as ambitious as Chazelle may be, I think he tried to cover too much…there was too much tackled in a two hour span. The musical component of the film felt unnecessary (at times even awkward), and let me be the first to admit that neither Stone nor Gosling are singers. It’s apparent that Chazelle was inspired by the likes of Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born, and he desperately wanted to emulate those classics. But his undeniable imitation, or ode if you will, only reminds me why we call old Hollywood the classical era of Hollywood. You simply can’t replicate it.

    “Chazelle opens with the old CinemaScope logo in the same way that Tarantino opens his films with vintage logos and teasers. The difference is that Tarantino understands the movies he’s pulling from and Chazelle doesn’t. Homage isn’t just playing the notes, or oversaturating the colours. La La Land is tone deaf. It has no catchy tunes, no extraordinary numbers (although there are a couple of big ones); it’s directed by the wrong person and written by the wrong person, who happen to be the same guy. Oh, and there’s a Baz Luhrmann scene with dancing among the stars. Swoon. The ‘No Dames’ number in Hail Caesar! is the most devastating critique of La La Land possible, doing in five minutes what this film fails to do for what seems like hours.” via Walter Chaw at Film Freak Central

    Despite my complaints and critiques, the film’s greatest asset is Emma Stone. This is her third movie romantically paired with Gosling, and their chemistry in this one is minimal. While Gosling gives an occasional brooding glance, trying his best James Dean imitation, it’s Stone who is steals every scene. Gosling appears to just be going through the motions on screen, but it’s Stone who gives me goosebumps. I’ve warmed up to her more in recent years, and her personal touches to this character’s awkward silliness is actually endearing and fitting. Expect a nomination for her performance, but whether or not it’s worthy of a win depends on the other nominees.

    While Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire glided effortlessly cheek to cheek, Stone and Gosling’s musical numbers appear unnecessary, choreographed and going through the motions of Chazelle’s dream on screen. Chazelle may light up the screen with another beautiful film, and gives a breath of fresh air back to the musical genre, but this “masterpiece” sadly fell a little flat for me. Not my tempo.

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