03 January 2017

Speaks Reviews: La La Land

Here's a dare for you...I dare you...No!...I double dog dare you to go see La La Land and TRY to get any one of its great songs out of your head. Example - For the last four hours I have sung the following line over and over and over and over on end: "City of stars, are you shining just for me?" Over and over and over.

And the good part, I assure you, reader, is that I am more than fine this. Great musicals are infectious. One performer (Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, or Seb, if you will) starts to sing a simple song. Then, another performer (Emma Stone, perhaps, as Mia) entertains this, though annoyed, as she changes from her heels into a more sensible shoe for tap dancing. She joins in. Then, you have magic. Just movie magic. A good view. Great lighting. A camera that pushes in a pulls back at just the right moments, accentuating the movements of its dancing movie stars. You join in, if you haven't already. If you're me, you "Ooh" and "Aah" with a smile on your face so big it almost hurts. You know exactly why you're where you are. 

La La Land is that kind of infectious as a musical, but it also works as a romance and a romantic comedy, smartly spreading its song and dance numbers out, a move that brings them that much more power. Gosling's Seb and Stone's Mia meet cute under strained circumstances, briefly, as he passes her in an unapproving way on an LA freeway traffic jam. The rest of the jammed drivers having just performed the movie's brilliant opening number, "Another Day of Sun," introducing the first two of three perfect love stories this film will tell. 

The first of the three is the simple one between the two leads, Gosling and Stone, as actors, both at the top of their game. Stone, especially so. He is a struggling jazz pianist, trying to make ends meet by playing rigid Christmas set lists in a dark restaurant, harboring dreams of opening his own jazz club, one that will play "pure jazz." She is a struggling actress, losing hope with each failed audition after audition, dreaming of a way to break through. Both somewhat lost inside themselves, completely off in la la land...wait!? What? But ultimately learning to ground themselves through each other, aiding in each other's potential.

The second stems from the other of the title's meanings, the city of angels itself, Los Angeles, land of no seasons, bad views, and misplaced identity. The sort of place that turns a classic jazz club into a samba and tapas place. "Samba? Tapas? Just do one thing right!" Seb exclaims in a disgusted rage. But this movie loves Los Angeles and what its history has given to the world. This builds into the third romance, which is nostalgia for a past that our current world of smart phones and hip hop and blockbusters just doesn't abide. 

And that third thing is the most clever thing about Damien Chazelle's new film. It is, at the simplest, surface level, a throwback to old Hollywood while being an original work set in the here and now. It honors the movies themselves, movies like Singin' in the Rain, for example, without ever trying to be them. Everybody knows, including the filmmakers and the star himself, that Ryan Gosling is not Gene Kelly. But the feeling that iconic film gives is alive here just the same. It honors the dying main street movie theater, open one day with a screening of Rebel Without a Cause, closed the next. It honors, most importantly, one of America's true original art forms, Jazz. 

I heard a strange argument on Twitter the other day, something to the tune of no critics seem to notice that Damien Chazelle's view of Jazz is so "white." That threw me for a loop. This film, while it stars two white actors, made by a white filmmaker, is plenty colorful in its love of Jazz. It references white artists like Hoagie Carmichael, but in the same breath it honors Miles Davis. Then, Charlie Parker. Then, Count Basie and on and on. The club Seb loves the most features a constant rotation of black musicians. And, later, when Seb finds a big break with a new Jazz-Hip-Hop fusion band with friend Keith (John Legend), it is a group of musicians both black and white in full appreciation of, in actual LOVE with their dying musical genre. 

Chazelle blends all of these romances together alongside a crack team of collaborators. His previous film Whiplash made a huge wave two years ago, racking up Best Picture and Directing nominations, ultimately winning for Film Editing and Best Supporting Actor. And here he his again, proving his place, at 31, among the masters of American cinema. It is wholly impressive seeing what this man can do with a camera, splashing every frame with deep blues and vibrant reds, moving us along at exhilarating speed, slowing us down when it needs to, always alive and present for the film aficionados but never calling unwanted attention to itself. La La Land is a full-on visual treat in every single way and flows so effortlessly that we can even forgive its stretching out of a thin plot in the last act. 

And then there's Justin Hurwitz's musical score...the best of the year. How it plays on itself and circles back around. It is one of the finest musical scores I've ever heard, brought to life with its jazz-infused horns and keys and drums, then given verbal delights by the lyric-writing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Their lyrics to "Audition" and "City of Stars" are with me forever now, and Hurwitz's musical stop and start in the "Someone in the Crowd" sequence is the best piece of movie music in a long, long time. 

The hype of La La Land is real. Here is a piece of cinematic art from a director on his second go-round given the full-on cineplex treatment, filling theaters across the country, making real money at the box office, proving elitist cynics like myself wrong by providing a shred of hope for our dying cinematic experience with his star-powered ode to romance, Jazz, and the movies themselves. La La Land loves us as much as it loves the things it stands up for. It wants our head in the clouds. It wants us to take chances by showing us chances taken. It offers us a New Year's toast. "Here's to the ones who dream, foolish as it may seem," it tell us. As a believer in dreams myself, I'll clink my glass to that. And I'll cherish this movie forever. 

Bottom Line

It really and truly is one of the absolute best movies of the year in a timeless sort of way. It is a rare and unique treat for the eyes and ears with performances to match from two of our current great movies stars in Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

★★★★ out of ★★★


  1. Everything was perfect about this. I loved this film so freaking much. I can't wait to see it again. It's the best film of the year, & it may just be my new favorite film of all time.

  2. I so want to see this film so much and will be seeing it soon that's for sure. I love musicals and this is one I'm looking forward to.

  3. Sooooooooooooooo jealous. My theater STILL hasn't gotten this.

    1. Glad you finally got to catch up with it. I'm about to head over to your review in a minute.

  4. "La La Land loves us as much as it loves the things it stands up for." So well said, couldn't agree more. I'm thrilled you liked this movie as much as I did.

    1. Thanks so much, man. It's a truly great piece of movie. I adored it.