Film Review: ‘La La Land’

La La Land
Courtesy of Summit Entertainment

In his first film since 'Whiplash,' Damien Chazelle stages a lavish song-and-dance musical that dares to swoon the old-fashioned way, with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as L.A. dreamers.

There was a moment back in the 1970s, sometime before “Grease” came out, when the image of people bursting into song and dance in the middle of a motion picture wasn’t simply corny and antiquated; it had come to seem downright strange. Not any more. Our era is immersed in retro musical culture, and it has been for a while — from the visionary postmodern pop swoon of “Moulin Rouge!” to the online resurgence of music video to the high-camp a cappella sincerity of “Glee” and the “Pitch Perfect” films. So what does it take to make a musical today look unabashedly exotic?

Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” which opened the Venice Film Festival on a voluptuous high note of retro glamour and style, is the most audacious big-screen musical in a long time, and — irony of ironies — that’s because it’s the most traditional. In his splashy, impassioned, shoot-the-moon third feature, Chazelle, the 31-year-old writer-director of “Whiplash,” pays virtuoso homage to the look and mood and stylized trappings of the Hollywood musicals of the ’40s and, especially, the ’50s (glorious soundstage spectacles of star-spangled rapture), with added shades of Jacques Demy and “New York, New York.” A lot of people still find old musicals corny or think (mistakenly) that they’re quaint. Yet the form remains stubbornly alive in the bones of our culture. That’s why it feels so right, in “La La Land,” to see a daring filmmaker go whole hog in re-creating a lavish studio-system musical, replete with starry nights and street lamps lighting up the innocence of soft-shoe romance, and two people who were meant for each other literally dancing on air.

“La La Land” is set in contemporary Los Angeles, but its heart and soul are rooted in the past, and so are its characters: Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a sleek jazz pianist in silk ties who’s a cranky purist about what he listens to, what he plays, and where he plays it, and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress and playwright who’s deep into the magic of the old movie stars, though she’s a tad less obsessive about her fixation. She works as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot and is always cutting out of work to get to auditions; if one of them ever resulted in her landing an acting job, she’d probably be ecstatic no matter what it was. These two meet, scuffle, and fall in love, and they do it through a series of song-and-dance numbers, composed by Justin Hurwitz (the lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), that are tenderly shocking in their catchy anachronistic beauty. The film’s score is such a melodious achievement that there are moments it evokes the bittersweet majesty of George Gershwin.

The movie opens with one of the most extraordinary sequences in years: a musical number, set in the middle of a morning drive-time traffic jam along a vast stretch of L.A. freeway, that is all done in one shot, in the look-ma-no-hands! tradition of the famous openings of “Touch of Evil” or “The Player.” Chazelle’s camera glides and twirls with astonishing choreographic intricacy among the passengers on their way to work, as they emerge, one by one, from their cars and flip and dance on top of them, fusing into the chorus of a song called “Another Day of Sun.” Cinematically, the sequence makes the impossible look easy, and it suggests a “gotta see” factor that could help to turn “La La Land” into a prestige novelty hit. In its way, though, the sequence, with its giddy optimism, sets up certain emotional expectations. The movie has a lot of time to get moodier, and it ultimately does. Yet Chazelle, by staging this number with so much seductive pizazz, taps our hunger to return to — and stay inside — an enchanted romantic universe.

Sebastian and Mia are among the freeway drivers, and they’re introduced, after a flurry of angry horn honks, by flipping each other the bird, at which point the film travels into Mia’s life: her bedroom with its posters of “Lilies of the Field” and “The Black Cat,” her three glam roommates, and a party that leads to another all-in-one-take musical number (or close enough to it — there are a couple of cuts). Then, finally, Mia is standing there, a little desolate, on the street, and she hears a lonely piano and heads into the bar the music is coming from, and the whole image fades to darkness (except for her), as she lays her eyes on… him. Across a crowded room. A stranger playing the piano. Except that the look on her face tells you he’s no stranger at all. She’s not just staring — she’s falling. That’s the sublimity of Old Hollywood, where we believed that it could happen just like this.

When Sebastian gets up from the piano, he brushes by Mia, nearly hitting her (we learn why later on), and the film then rotates into his life, and we see how deliciously parallel the two are: old-school dreamers trapped in a world of entertainment commerce that’s designed to crush the life out of you. They reunite at a pool party, where he’s playing synth-keyboards in a tacky ’80s cover band. He’s been fired from the club (by J.K. Simmons, winkingly reprising the hanging-judge hostility of his Oscar-winning performance in “Whiplash”), and Mia hasn’t forgiven him for literally giving her the cold shoulder. But that means they’re ready for that old-time Hollywood religion, when two lucky people get to discover what the audience already knows: that the reason they “don’t like” each other is that they already love each other. They just need to figure it out.

The two take a stroll, over to a view of L.A.’s glittering carpet of lights that merges into the pastel twilight, and Chazelle stages a gorgeous scene in which they sit, and talk, and start dancing, just the way actors did on sets in the 1950s. The sheer beauty of the staging creates a calm logic of devotion. These two belong together because Gosling, his slight edge of malice dipped in honey, and Stone, her vivacity cut by a pensive awareness, create a teasing erotic connection, but mostly they belong together because… they dance like this. That’s called the poetry of the 20th century, and the reverent way that Chazelle and his two actors revive it is a delicate and moving thing. Gosling and Stone click together as effervescently as they did in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” At the Griffith Observatory, where Sebastian and Mia go after having just seen it in “Rebel Without a Cause,” they enter the planetarium and are swept up into the stars, and it’s a transcendently goofy, gorgeously blissed-out moment.

The movie needs a complication, of course, and once Sebastian and Mia become a couple, it gets one, in the form of a question: How are either of these people going to make good on their dream? Sebastian wants to open a club, but the kind of music he obsesses over is ripe for a museum. Almost no one is going to shell out to hear it. But it’s not until he lands a paycheck gig with his old musician colleague, played by a charmingly no-nonsense John Legend, that he starts to listen to reason. He’s got to earn a living, and he knows it, so he submits to being part of a commercial pop-jazz band in which he stands in front of screaming crowds and plays funk synthesizer lines that sound just a little bit greasy.

“La La Land” starts as a twinkly fantasy of sophisticated innocence, cut with a touch of modern L.A. sass (especially in Mia’s casually cruel audition scenes). In its second half, though, the film gives itself over to a slightly murky version of the art-vs.-commerce, how-to-hold-onto-your-dream theme. Should Sebastian even be in this band? Oddly, it’s Mia who suddenly says that he shouldn’t (she’s bothered by his relentless touring schedule), and the two get into a fight about it. It’s portrayed as one of those things that just happens between a couple, but given that Sebastian was trying to step up and grow up, on some basic level it’s a little hard to buy that Mia is now the purist. But then, it turns out that her own purity is going to take her far. She just needs a little prodding. Emma Stone, in a luminous performance, is by turns plucky, furious, hopeful, distraught, and devoted, and when she sings the wistful ballad “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” she is every inch a star.

As their fortunes start to seesaw, the film acquires some of the stormy turbulence of “A Star Is Born,” as well as glimmers of the doubt and disconnection of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” All of which can feel just a bit discordant. Chazelle wants to make a musical that celebrates the classic Hollywood vision of love as spiritual perfection. But he also wants to make an age-of-alienation love story that undercuts the old simplicities. He has the right to do both; that’s what “Moulin Rouge!” did. But if Chazelle sticks to the bittersweet truth of the story he’s telling, there’s a part of you that wants to see him shoot the works, to make good on that opening sequence by topping it. “La La Land” isn’t a masterpiece (and on some level it wants to be). Yet it’s an elating ramble of a movie, ardent and full of feeling, passionate but also exquisitely controlled. It winds up swimming in melancholy, yet its most convincing pleasures are the moments when it lifts the audience into a state of old-movie exaltation, leading us to think, “What a glorious feeling. I’m happy again.”

Film Review: 'La La Land'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival, Sept. 1, 2016. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 128 Min.

Production

A Lionsgate release of a Summit Entertainment, Gilbert Films, Imposter Pictures, Marc Platt production. Produced by Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt, Gary Gilbert.

Crew

Director, screenplay: Damien Chazelle. Camera (color, widescreen): Linus Sandgren. Editor: Tom Cross.

With

Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Meagan Fay.

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  1. Ven Desra says:

    This review isn’t a masterpiece (and on some level, it wants to be)

  2. frankcandormail@gmail.com says:

    It’s a Bollywood movie done by Hollywood.

  3. Josh says:

    I loved this movie, it is my favorite movie, this is my opinion. If you hated it then you have bad opinions, and I’m better than you. If you haven’t seen it, GO SEE IT!

  4. Phil Tidbury says:

    Love musicals but only lasted 15 minutes with this La La Land drivel. What a load of tosh made worse by these “Kings new clothes” critic reviews. Don’t bother watching.

    • Good luck with life pessimist says:

      The movie is easily one of the best movies of 2016. I can see you are a pessimist with a pessimistic driven attitude. Dont bother listening to him, the movie was great.

  5. jeffmartin254 says:

    I just did not get into it simply because I am not a fan of musicals which is my issue not the film. This is also not Goslings fault but he has a distracting resemblance to Ted Bundy, complete with souless expressions, which put me off.

  6. Erik Anderson says:

    The worst film I’ve seen in 30 years. Absolutely awful in almost every respect.

  7. Awful retro gone wrong hardly a hollywood muusical terrible film and emma stones eyes look feirće

  8. Mike says:

    Very very disappointed first 35 minutes almost fell asleep compered to past musical mr Damien chazzel needs a lesson if it wins an award the voters belong in LA LA LAND

  9. Paul Ritchie says:

    We enjoyed it immensely. A film for aspiring actors and musicians who felt every moment of hope and despair for Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in their roles. And a nice little love story of unrequited love, but the music !? just fabulous. It won’t please the action fans , and it was fiddly; accentuated by the periods of the narrative. But it was never intended to satisfy everyone. Its a love story about the performing arts and the people in them. Go see it .You wont regret it.

  10. Merlin says:

    Why don’t you tell what the rating is? We need to know that before seeing a movie.

  11. Michael says:

    Great movie.

    But I have to disagree with some points. The first number was the worst of the whole film. Brainless people with smiles pasted on their faces, staring into space, dancing to a song not important to the story at all. All spectacle with no content. A little bit of talent from many people does not equal a lot of talent from two people. Bigger is not better.

    The slow songs were where the film was the strongest. The piano duet in their tiny apartment was intimate, emotional and perfect, showcasing how the two were so closely intertwined and in their own bubble. And of course the final few minutes of the movie were gut wrenching.

    It is supposed to be a sad and personal love story and I think tonally the film is near perfect.

  12. KansasGuest says:

    I’ve been a fan of classic Hollywood musicals since I was child. The professionalism with which those were made will never be matched. Those actors, writers, lyricists and composers were the best in the country. But, the charm and enthusiasm of LA LA LAND just sparkled and won me over. Yes, the chorus contained better dancers and singers than Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. But, they weren’t better actors, which is what this movie needs to sell its bittersweet ending. It could have dubbed Emma Stone, as Debbie Reynolds was dubbed in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. But, honestly, having someone without a perfect Broadway belt matches the message of the movie. Here’s to all those creative types who are constantly putting themselves out there for their dream, even if it’s imperfect and seems impossible to others.

    • Alec Antrobus says:

      The lyrics of the opening number are very relevant to the story line.
      But they can be missed in the sheer exuberance of the images and the dancing etc.
      I must admit that on the first look I missed that relevance.
      An aside…..
      Folk who try to tell others not to waste their money should really realise that their opinion
      is personal and not try to push it onto others.

    • François Monferran says:

      Debbie Reynolds does her own singing in SINGIN’ except for ONE song!

    • Gps says:

      Charm, enthusiasm, sparkle – are you sure it was LaLa Land that you saw!!

  13. Gps says:

    This is the worst movie I have seen in a long time. The hype around it is not deserved at any level and if it were to run away with any Academy Awards then I would suggest the selectors be sent to LaLa Land for treatment

  14. Victoria says:

    Saw it today. Way, way overrated. Stone can act but she can’t sing

  15. Acher says:

    Love love love this movie to bits. Instant classic – would watch over and over again!

  16. PS2 says:

    Too long. Last 20 minutes useless. Should have ended on the possibility they could meet again.
    Not a musical. A movie with music in it , somewhat like indian movies

  17. Paul O says:

    I just saw it. It’s way overhyped, not much conflict, undercooked surface characters. Some great sequences but as a narrative there’s not much there. As for a musical, the lyrical songs were scant and didn’t add much to the emotion or depth of the characters. I didn’t get attached to either character with their trite and trifling Hollywood dreams. Pretty white people struggling to be stars. A big yawner.

    • Jones says:

      My thoughts exactly. Saw Moana – walked out singing at least three of those songs and they’ll stick with me. La La Land?? 20 minutes later, couldn’t tell you one song. For a “musical” nothing musically resonated. It was okay in the moment, then gone – as ephemeral and fleeting as the magical digital sunsets of purple Chazelle was obsessed with in the movie.

      The characters had dreams…. Because they had dreams… No depth to them at all. This was a beautifully shot piece of confection that will have zero lasting impact.

    • Aud B says:

      Paul O, I totally agree with you!

    • cbarnes2222 says:

      You are probably bored with everything I suspect. You must have fallen asleep at the wheel while you were in the theater. This is a wonderful movie. Period.

  18. Just saw ‘ La la land ‘ and couldn’t agree more with this review..Kudos to you ….

  19. JT says:

    Always love to see actors/actresses winning things that haven’t stepped in the trash of political garbage either right or left. I want to escape into the movies without thinking about the stupidity of politics.

  20. Steve Barr says:

    This movie sounds great . Maybe it’s success will get people interested in underappreciated. musicals like One From The Heart and The Cotton Club .

  21. Steven Mascaro says:

    I can hardly wait to see this movie. It seems to me to be the film the movie year has been waiting to be released. The year, so far, has been a disappointment, but this movie sounds wonderful. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are amazing actors as is.

    • Richard says:

      I was looking forward to this movie and saw it last night but was disappointed. Disjointed in its visual style mainly by trying to ape many classical musicals and falling way short this movie owes a great debt to the French films of Demy and Gene Kelly’s Singing and American in Paris. As for the musical part it’s one thing to suggest amateurism as opposed to Hollywood professional polish but the singing and dancing was more high school musical or watching your young niece or nephew perform at a holiday gathering, painful and awkward. The love story and professional struggles were cliched and boring for the most part and full of character inconsistencies. While on the whole it strives for much, it delivers on just a fraction. Yes is has some great parts but on the whole not deserving of the praise.

      • Caro says:

        Oh my gosh THANK YOU!!! FIRST review I’ve seen that agrees entirely with my own point of view! Gracias.

  22. macd says:

    This sounds like precisely the kind of vehicle needed to turn Derek Hough (the dynamic, Emmy-winning dancer/choreographer/singer of TV’s “Dancing with the Stars”) into an A-list movie star. As for his partner, Jennifer Lawrence would create the kind of chemistry not seen since the heyday of Fred and Ginger (no matter if Ms. Lawrence can’t dance; Mr. Hough would make a pro out of her–as he does for all of his partners on ‘DWTS’–in no time flat). Gosling and Ms. Stone may be critics’ darlings, but have the charisma and box office lure of two flat tires. Mr. Gleiberman’s curious critique begins as an all-out rave but concludes as something considerably less than that. I’m only suggesting that a change in the two leads (and nowhere does Gleiberman mention anything regarding Gosling & Ms. Stone’s singing or dancing abilities) may have given the director the masterpiece he was obviously trying to make.

    • KansasGuest says:

      Derek and Julianne Hough remind me of Gower and Marge Champion, the husband/wife dance team who were ubiquitous in 50s MGM musicals – loads of dance talent, but not emotionally vulnerable enough in straight acting scenes for the audience to make much of a connection.

    • lindsey says:

      I was thinking Justin Timberlake, but doubt he’d pull off all the dramatic turns required.

    • fin fang foom says:

      Hough is a pretty face without the depth of talent to pull off what the role required. The kid can dance, but that it far from the be-all of the role. I’ve seen the film. Review is pretty spot on. The chemistry between the leads is real and wonderful.

    • Mike guns says:

      Good point, Derek Hough’s mom.

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