Months ago I read the sentence, “Damien Chazelle’s next film will be La La Land, a love letter to classic movie musicals starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.” In that moment I knew instantly that this was going to be one of my favorite films of the year. Whiplash, Chazelle’s first film, was an absolutely colossal success. A tour de force of brilliance, it wowed everyone back in 2014 and cemented its place as one of my favorite films of all time. So understandably, I was considerably excited to see what this director could bring next. Then I started hearing nothing but absolutely stellar reviews of this film coming out of its various festival releases. This early buzz combined with my love of the director and stars supercharged my anticipation for this film to a veritable fever pitch. Usually when you reach such interstellar expectations for a film you put yourself in a gigantically treacherous position as it is easy to be disappointed. I am very pleased to say I left La La Land feeling anything but.
How do you make a musical in 2016? Well, to be perfectly honest, you don’t. At least, that’s what Chazelle was told as he struggled for years to get this film made. No studio executive was going to sign off on a thirty million dollar jazz musical that wasn’t already based off a wildly popular existing property. But thankfully after Chazelle’s incendiary Hollywood debut he was allowed to make a musical that is completely unlike any that has been made in decades. And yes, I do mean decades. I said in the intro that this film is designed to be a love letter to the musicals of old. I’m not sure there’s a better way to describe the mission this film acquiesces to. The story lovingly follows two aspirational artists struggling to make it in the shark-infested waters of Los Angeles, California. Emma Stone plays Mia, a girl with the dream of being a successful actor, but at the moment has to settle with being a barista on the Warner Brothers Lot. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, an adept pianist with nothing but heartfelt sentiment for jazz music of old. He has pictures of Thelonious Monk in his apartment and dreams of one day opening a club in which he can embrace Jazz Music in all of its former glory, and not resign to appreciating the boring “Elevator Music” that gets played these days. The two stars meet one day, naturally, and fall in love, leaving the rest of the film to follow their desires to enact their own dreams, for better or worse.
So what exactly is it that makes this film so unique? If you watch any musical in recent memory they will inevitably be made with grandiose and lavish numbers that progress the plot along that are invariably edited out the wazoo to make them seem much more “cinematic” in nature. La La Land is exactly the opposite. The musical numbers are stripped down to the most key components. The music. And the actors. Rather than garnering operatic lyrics that crescendo into Sondheimian displays of choral explosions (which is a technique that works for some), La La Land actually lets the music be more important than the words being sung. At some points in the film, a few keys on the piano are more affecting than the lyrics. This is where Chazelle really shines when it comes to a director. His Jazz sensibilities were shown in Whiplash, but are turned up to a hundred percent in this film when they create musical pieces that simply aren’t really heard in movies anymore. I wouldn’t like to be misunderstood when I say the music is more important than the lyrics, which are still very well written. I don’t want to convey the message that the music is more important than the actors either because the marriage between these two aspects is so beautifully done it is honestly a misstep to refer to it as anything short of a match made in heaven. What Chazelle does with his actors in this film is something that truly hasn’t been done since the days of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. And by that I mean you are allowed to actually see them perform. This film is directed with many, many long takes, a technique that makes most cinephiles very, very happy. And for good reason, as it is a difficult thing to pull off. For those of you out there who aren’t as attuned to the movie industry, long takes are shots that follow the action on screen for an extended period of time without using any cuts. Every single musical number in this film utilizes this technique. You watch the actors actually dance, not just look like they’re dancing. I believe the scene in which this is most front and center is a beautiful tap dancing scene between the two characters that has become the iconic image featured on the film’s many posters. You are able to see the entirety of the actor’s bodies as they orchestrate the film’s mighty choreography, a technique that has not been fully realized onscreen since the Singing in the Rain days. Chazelle uses long takes not only in the musical numbers but in the straight scenes as well, to create a magical air to the film that presents the idea that at any moment something special might happen.
The best word to describe La La Land is iridescent. Every single frame of this film is breathtaking to behold. It’s composed of marvelous colors and beautifully designed costumes. The film was shot at over 60 different locations in Los Angeles, capturing it in a heartfelt and vibrant light that I genuinely can’t recall having seen ever before. This is a film that manages to make even L.A.’s infamous traffic jams feel fun and idyllic. Gosling and Stone are pitch perfect as the leads. Stone, hot off her Oscar win, glides from scene to scene with beauty and charm. She radiates off the screen with the sort of commanding presence that makes a film memorable. As for Gosling, well it’s official. Ryan Gosling can do anything. He is so entertaining in everything he does, and this film is no different. He’s charismatic but also dimensioned. The same can be said for both his costar and this film as a whole. This is more than just a fun little musical. This is a loving, mature, emotional masterpiece with an ending that will leave you talking for days.
La La Land is not a movie that grabs your heart from the very beginning as something that you will absolutely love. Instead, it’s something very different. At some point in this movie, I imagine it’s a different moment for every person, you have a little realization to yourself. You come to the mental revelation that this film is in fact, fantastic. It sort of sneaks up on you, but when you think about it, it’s been there the whole time. There’s an indescribable aspect to this film that makes it particularly special. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I think it might be perfection. I’m serious when I say I can’t possibly think of anything wrong with this film. I’ve given it a lot of thought and I can’t think of a single thing that I didn’t like. At the very least, I know that Chazelle made a film that was perfect for him. His passion for this project is palpable in every single, magnificent shot of this movie. The word classic gets thrown about too often. I myself use it pretty willingly for films that don’t always deserve it. But let me tell you this. If La La Land doesn’t become a classic remembered for years to come, it will be one of the biggest injustices in Cinematic History.
All images are from La La Land, a Lionsgate film. Thank you for this incredible production.