La La Land Review: A Flourishing Romance Amid Ambitious Dreams

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A Flourishing Romance Amid Ambitious Dreams

Damien Chazelle’s dazzling musical might just be the savior Hollywood needs.

Just when we were getting ready to write off Hollywood for solely producing noisy, cumbersome and soulless blockbusters, comes this aching, witty and unabashedly romantic musical. Equal parts heartbreaking and joyful, old-fashioned and brand-new, Stanley Donen and Jaques Demy; Damien Chazelle’s dazzling and magical La La Land is a contemporary romance proudly in touch with its past, yet innovative and forward-looking at the same time. Terms like “love letter to LA/Hollywood” and “makes you believe in the magic of movies again” have been thrown around before (at times, too generously) especially in relation to Hollywood-set films concerning its very industry. But in this case, all the overly adoring praise of this sort is well earned by Chazelle’s showstopper.

La La Land follows the romance of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). The former is a starlet and playwright with big dreams, while the latter is a jazz pianist and purist who wants nothing more than restoring one of LA’s legendary jazz clubs, (which now serves as a confusing ‘Samba and Tapas’ place), to its former glory. The two meet cute in one of those infamous LA traffic jams, following one of the film’s most spectacular song & dance numbers (performed by countless drivers stuck in traffic), choreographed to the film’s finest tune, “Another Day of Sun”. Yes, even joyless highway traffic, miraculously used and made to look like a convenient place for a musical number, looks blissful through Chazelle’s lens and Linus Sandgren’s bright, rich photography. The duo not only makes the “City of Stars” look like a million bucks with shades of gold, green, red, blue and purple, but also almost dares one to simply lick the lurid screen like candy.

The attraction between Mia and Sebastian becomes palpable when they keep running into each other across the town’s various social events. But in that delicious, screwball comedy kind of way, they initially disguise their mutual affection under playful tête-à-têtes, only modernized with a touch of contemporary sarcasm. And then true to the golden days of Hollywood musicals of 1950s, they launch into a sing & dance duet that dotingly nods to Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain. The soon-to-be infamous scene where Mia gleefully taps in a happy canary dress across from a dapper Sebastian –a still from which is gloriously used in the film’s poster- does the trick. The couple’s next meeting after “A Lovely Night” (just another one of the heart-conquering songs composed by Justin Hurwitz) wouldn’t be accidental. In their yearlong trajectory together – humorously divided into four chapters according to seasons, all of which of course look exactly the same in the perennially sunny Los Angeles – the couple lift each other up and serve as each other’s creative catalysts: thanks to Sebastian, Mia finally finds the courage to write her own one-woman play. And thanks to Mia, Sebastian joins a flourishing band lead by his old friend Keith (played by a very charismatic John Legend), in order to save up and pursue his dreams. But the love they have found in each other proves to be incompatible with their dreams, to which they both know they need to give their all.

The leads have wonderful chemistry as two wide-eyed lovers with big artistic appetites and aspirations. With his easygoing, flirtatious charms, Gosling once again slips into the body of a handsome, confident Hollywood leading man with ease, perhaps more than ever before. His energetic piano playing looks completely believable (the dedicated actor apparently insisted on nailing down every note as realistically as he could) and his dancing feels both weightless and brawny. But this is ultimately a showcase for Stone, who is terrific in a powerhouse role that grants her a much wider range of acting challenge than her co-star. In her various auditions throughout, Stone acts out numerous scenes and switches gears between layers of complicated emotions swiftly. (In fact, her key audition scene is what might win her an Oscar come February.)

At only 31, Damien Chazelle – an Academy Award nominee as a writer for the 2014 jazz drama/thriller Whiplash – has already made it big in Hollywood with his bravura filmmaking and astounding talents on the page and behind the camera. Much of his Whiplash sensibilities infuse the much softer, happier and more melancholic La La Land with a familiar vision. His love of jazz shines through in both films (in that, Sebastian and Whiplash’s Andrew definitely share a creative DNA). Along with his repeat editor Tom Cross, he charges both films with long takes, coupled with upbeat/staccato cuts. But La La Land is altogether a brand-new, next level achievement for the young talent. In one scene Keith confronts Sebastian’s stuck-in-the-past jazz ideals by asking him “How are you going to be a revolutionary, if you’re such a traditionalist?” With La La Land, Chazelle seems to have taken Keith’s advice to heart. Remakes aren’t Hollywood’s future. Growing with and building upon its history is.

Here’s to the fools who dream.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.