By Cris Mendoza (Rancho Cucamonga, CA)
La La Land is directed by Damien Chazelle, and stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. John Legend, J.K. Simmons, Rosemarie DeWitt, Tom Everett Scott, and Finn Wittrock also co-star. This film joins a barrage of other Academy Award contenders such as Moonlight, Fences, and Manchester by the Sea that are filling cinemas nationwide towards the end of the New Year, fighting for the Oscar gold this February. This is Damien Chazelle’s third feature film as a director. Chazelle’s 2014 surprise hit Whiplash was critically acclaimed upon release, and many were excited to see what his next effort was going to be. When I found out that his next film was going to be a romantic musical comedy, I was a bit skeptical. Whiplash was a film that was completely the opposite of a musical comedy film, but rather a dark, gritty, and sometimes even hard to watch drama about an amateur drummer’s obsession with being one of the best jazz musicians in music history, and his sadistic instructor who stands in his way of his dreams.
I loved Whiplash, and I named it one of my top five films of 2014, alongside Birdman and Nightcrawler, among others. After a rough holiday week of losing two legendary figures in entertainment: George Michael and Carrie Fisher, I was hoping that the film would help me get through the week, and make me feel at least a little bit better after watching it. The result was one word: AMAZING. These past few years haven’t been really all that great for musicals. Les Miserables and Disney’s Into the Woods were moderate successes at the box office and among critics, but aren’t as memorable, and don’t hold up as much years later. La La Land, on the other hand, is probably one of the best musical films that I’ve ever seen. With its extravagant set pieces, near-perfect direction, phenomenal performances, and beautiful soundtrack and score, it is by far my favorite film of 2016.
The film takes place in Los Angeles (if you didn’t already get the hint from the title of the movie), and stars Emma Stone as Mia, a down-on-her-luck but aspiring actress who works as a coffee barista on the Warner Bros. studio lot, and Sebastian, a jazz-obsessed pianist who dreams of one day owning his own jazz club. The film is split into five separate acts: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter: 5 Years Later. Mia and Sebastian end up meeting by chance and eventually fall in love. When Mia goes through several more auditions, all ending in rejection, she decides to write her own play about her move from Boulder City, Nevada (with the irony being that Emma Stone is actually from Phoenix, Arizona, another city in the Southwestern United States) to Los Angeles, and the struggle she goes through to achieve her dreams of becoming an actress. At the same time, Sebastian is approached by an old schoolmate by the name of Keith (played by John Legend), who is recruiting a jazz band and wants him to join. Seeing this as an opportunity to see jazz music make a comeback, Sebastian accepts. However, when Sebastian’s band makes it big, Mia and Sebastian’s relationship is put to the test when both of their current occupations conflict with their romance, and get in the way of truly achieving their dreams. Will they be able to be rise above these conflicts, and manage to stay together, while still making their dreams come true?
I want to jump right into the positive aspects of this film. There are many of them! With 2016 being quite a dreadful year for major blockbusters, with Independence Day: Resurgence and Assassin’s Creed being a few, it was incredibly refreshing to finally get this film. There are no stupid romantic comedy clichés, no outer space battles, and no explosion-filled action scenes that we’ve been seeing in quite a lot of movies lately. This film doesn’t even have a human antagonist: the city of Los Angeles itself is the most horrifying antagonist in the film. A city infamous for crushing hopes and dreams, and commercializing them for profit, rather than allowing people to achieve their dreams themselves. Sebastian and Mia could have just as well been mindless, soulless, romantic comedy archetypes, rather than human characters. However, due to the robust chemistry between Gosling and Stone (collaborating in their third film together, after the surprise hit Crazy Stupid Love, and the critically panned Gangster Squad). Their fascinating conversations about art and music, as well as their own personal lives kept me vested the entire film.
The songs and score compositions in this film are phenomenal. The musical performances of Stone, Gosling, and even the supporting cast, are all extremely well done. From the opening one take, flash-mob frenzy of “Another Day of Sun”, I was already sucked into the film within the first four minutes. “Someone in the Crowd”, a poppy quartet between Mia and her roommates; “A Lovely Night”, a tap dance duet between Gosling and Stone, almost exactly reminiscent of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film; “Planetarium”, a stunning fantasy sequence of the two leads floating above air, imaging themselves actually drifting into the stars of the Griffith Observatory display; “City of Stars”, the Golden Globe nominated (and hopefully Oscar nominated) piano duet between Gosling and Stone, which paints a musical picture of the glamour and daunt of Los Angeles itself; and finally “Audition (the Fools Who Dream)”, which is my favorite song in the entire film, with Emma Stone giving the best solo musical performance in a film since Anne Hathaway in “Les Miserables”. The sheer passion and strong emotion impact of this performance was so powerful, that people in the audience that I was watching the film with were literally left in tears and sobbing, while I was left with goosebumps. Ironically enough, “Singin’ in the Rain,” and “The Wizard of Oz” had their films scored in the same studio as this film, which adds even more to the film’s parallel and tribute to Golden Age musicals. Justin Hurwitz’s song and score segments are beautifully done, and I’m hoping for him to get quite a bit of recognition, come award season.
Chazelle’s direction and Linus Sandgren’s cinematography are another force to be reckoned with. Without Chazelle’s use of long takes, combined with Sandgren’s elegant set pieces, and vibrant colors, the film itself would not even be half of what it is. The entire film was shot in 2.5 CinemaScope, which allows for the colors to appear more vibrantly. This is a choice that both Chazelle and Sandgren made, because simply filming with a digital camera would make the film appear a lot more realistically, and not as bright and vibrant, which is what the purpose of the film is to be: Dream-like and whimsical. Just about every musical sequence is filmed in a long take. The tracking shots and long shots are masterfully executed, making a shot that looks so difficult to shoot, seem effortless. Filming song sequences in musicals are not as easy to do, but making them all into individually long take takes just as much direction and effort. Chazelle is able to achieve status as a 21st century Jacques Demy with this film, with Stone as a modern day Catherine Deneuve, and Gosling as a modern day Nino Castelnuovo or Gene Kelly.
In conclusion, I absolutely adored every second of this movie. A scene in the film that struck me the most was a scene when Gosling and Stone are discussing jazz music, with Gosling’s character claiming it as a “dying art.” I saw a bit of a parallel and comparison to the musical genre of film. They don’t make musicals like they used to in Hollywood anymore. The musical genre is slowly coming to a halt. While there will no doubt be more musical films in the making, none will achieve the same love letter to old Hollywood status as this film will. This is by far the best musical film of this generation, and not only is this my favorite musical film at the moment, this is my favorite film of the year. Period. This movie is the reason why I appreciate the art of cinema. They never make films like this one anymore, and it’s a real shame that they don’t. Catch this film in theaters while you still can, and prepare to be dazzled by the spectacle. This is more than just another moving picture with colors and music. It is a force to be reckoned with.
My final rating: A+
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