La La Land (2016) is only writer/director Damien Chazelle’s third feature, but given the runaway success of his last effort, Whiplash (2014), it was no surprise some studio-head gave the 31-year-old director carte blanche on his next outing. Clearly he took advantage – he made a musical. Chazelle has thus far demonstrated a strong commitment to jazz music – not just as a motif but as a binding thread – in crafting his stories. Whiplash used jazz to unfurl a tragedy worthy of an Arthur Miller play, and his first feature, Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench (2009), twisted the free-form of jazz into a postmodern satire on love and beauty. La La Land draws a shamelessly obvious parallel between the fading fame of jazz and the fading glamour of Hollywood, contextualizing this theme within the romance between two avowed L.A. traditionalists: Mia (Emma Stone), the aspiring actress raised on library-copies of Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Notorious (1946), and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), the resolute jazz-pianist spinning away his Thelonious Monk albums and drinking alone in jazz cafes beneath a 6-foot photo of Bill Evans.
The less said about their romance and the less said about the plot, the better. I barely won the honor of reviewing this film in a pitched game of Rock-Paper-Scissors with Reed, so I don’t want to waste it on summation. Plus, as with those Vincente Minnelli / Stanley Donen films which La La Land evokes, this is a tale better shown, not told. But believe me when the sight (and, God, the sound) is one worth beholding.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are absolutely flawless together on-screen. Their chemistry is likely to be discussed ad nauseum as critics quickly turn La La Land into a darling, but it’s important to note that, independent of one another (as they are for a solid portion of the film), both of these actors are at the absolute top of their game. This is a star-vehicle for two huge talents. Hollywood used to crank out excuses for Dean Martin to appear on screen with Marilyn Monroe and Bergman and Bogart before that, but it’s still an utter delight to see a film pairing two stars of such equal talent and merit.
Composer Justin Hurwitz, who collaborated with Chazelle on his last two features, delivers an absolutely magnificent score. It’s jazzy and big band-y and showtune-y and poppish and orchestral and sentimental and absolutely deft at evoking any and all emotions Chazelle and Hurwitz might want out of you. In the words of Reed, “Do yourself a favor and go see La La Land.” I’ll add to that, “Do yourself a favor and go hear La La Land.”
If La La Land is an ‘awards-worthy’ film, it is for the same reasons as 2011’s The Artist, 2012’s Argo, and 2014’s Birdman. In recent years Hollywood has been on a self-effacing kick. The Academy has made it a priority to reward those introspective films that question the very purpose of the medium in society. “Metacinema” is in vogue in the twenty-first century. The Artist contextualized film’s place in the modern world by taking us back to its silent origins, Argo used a true-life political thriller as the wrapping paper around an examination of narrative and all its pitfalls, and Birdman brought the “character” into the postmodern by reminding us all that the people behind the curtain suffer extraordinarily to entertain their ravenous populace. La La Land is no exception to this trend, but perhaps offers a more inspirational take, if not necessarily a positive one.
Yes, given that it’s a love letter to Golden Age Hollywood musicals, La La Land is predictably sentimental and gaudy and escapist, but succeeds beautifully at capturing the essence of such genre tropes. If La La Land had been released sixty years ago, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, it would likely have become just another “movie classic” that the family might be happy to catch on TCM around Christmastime. As it stands, La La Land could be viewed as a “1st-World White Problem” satire, but that’s never the ostensible point of such hackneyed plots and character conflicts. Yes, the entire conceit behind the characters’ central dilemmas is privileged beyond belief: “I want to be an ACTRESS!” “Yeah, well I want to be a MUSICIAN!” But with the benefit of hindsight, and over five decades between this “Hollywood musical” and those that came before, La La Land ends up feeling like a breath of fresh-air.
Chazelle is as comfortable with his camera as a pianist with his keys, and treats it with the same regard. He knows the rules and therefore might break them, twirling and spinning the lens around 180 degrees to catch a reaction shot, tracking seamlessly across rooms to capture a single emotional beat, and highlighting every cymbal crash and Minor Fifth with his trademark punch-ins. La La Land is shot by Linus Sandgren, most famous for David O. Russell’s Joy (2015) and American Hustle (2013). Like Russell, Chazelle seems to embrace a dynamic camera, but unlike Russell, Chazelle knows to let the scene govern the camera, and not the other way around. Each shot is presaged by an emotional moment or plot point, and the writing fuels every wide-frame close-up and brightly-lit profile. There is nothing wasted and nothing superfluous. The music is obviously the driving force behind most of the moments – even those scenes in La La Land that do not include a musical number are implicitly governed by musical composition. Chazelle has made a symphony of a film, with commensurate arcs – story, character, cinematography, editing, score – riding along in a unified progression.
The colors here are extraordinary. The film begins teasingly in black-and-white, with the color fading up as the truncated “CINEMASCOPE” logo is unveiled by the pillar boxes sweeping out to reveal the whole screen. From then on the film coruscates with pastels and shimmering set-pieces. But no element is given as much attention as the two leads. Gosling spills out muted golds and Gilded-Age bronze, while Stone is all-but-worshipped by luxurious reds and joyful yellows. The Art Direction here is staggering, featuring almost none of the L.A. landmarks we expect to see from a film literally titled “L.A.” (aside from a prominent tongue-in-cheek inclusion of the famous observatory lifted straight out of Rebel Without A Cause (1955)). We see murals and movie houses and half-empty jazz lounges and sprawling party scenes that would make Baz Luhrmann retire early (if only). The musical numbers are lovingly orchestrated, and although Gosling and Stone are no Kelly and Vera-Ellen, they move with a graceful chemistry that breathes life into the simple dance steps.
The opening shot to La La Land is astonishing. I would do it a disservice by describing it in any way, but Reed has called it his new favorite opening shot of all-time, and I’m hard-pressed to disagree with him. However for me, the honor still belongs to Godard’s 400 Blows (for more on this, stay-tuned for my upcoming “Seven4Seven”).
I noticed one moment that perhaps best illustrates the level of meticulousness and craftsmanship Chazelle is working with. A little after the Midpoint, Mia (Stone) is walking home to her apartment. Lonely, she calls Sebastian (Gosling) to let him know she’s been missing him. The shot dollies backward as Stone approaches the camera. It’s a standard one-shot walk-and-talk, seemingly just a filler filmed out of necessity for this moment in the story. The score underneath is just that – underneath. It’s low and uninspired and subconscious, just as film scores are so often designed to be. Then, all of sudden, as Stone hangs up her cell-phone, the score trills upward. We hear a high B or something, followed by a few drags on a timpani. That clause in the song is clearly coming to an end. And just as the downbeat washes over your ears…an out-of-focus streetlight turns green in the background. You have just enough time to see it before Chazelle cuts away.
What streetlight? That’s it. You didn’t even know it was there. Until it changed. Until it revealed itself not only as a player, but as the player. This moment makes the scene. It ushers Stone into the next set-piece and releases the tension felt by her character in that moment of isolation. Gosling’s Sebastian would say, “It’s like jazz.”
And maybe it is.
Sometime in the last seventy-five-or-so years, “escape” became a dirty-word. There are few more damning critiques of modern films than those that call them “escapist.” Critics use the term to pan superhero movies and raunchy ensemble comedies (perhaps rightfully so). Audiences will use the word to scoff at those films so mawkish or underwritten that their worlds are mere parodies of our own, for even the layman to see as facade and farce. If critics and scholars and analysts and even we-as-movie-goers want to stress the insubstantiality of a film, we will casually dismiss it as “escapist.” If a film isn’t a Banksy or a Warhol or a Basquiat or a Rick Owens, it’s just escapist trash. So says the so-called “modern movie-goer.”
But La La Land’s Sebastian has an answer for those that say jazz is dead and one-woman plays are stupid. And he has an answer for this “modern movie-goer” too:
We forgot that in order for something to be “escapist,” it has to offer us a world familiar enough to escape into. Because although we all like to think we would prefer to run away into Harry Potter-type fantasies or a galaxy far, far away, we are ultimately endemic creatures. People love the comforts of home and friends and family and love. We escape into these beautiful worlds presented to us by filmmakers not because they’re overly simplistic or maudlin or foolish or sentimental, but because they have that one nugget of familiarity that drops sparks in our eyes. At their best, escapist films are still human films. It’s just that at some point along the way, we dropped the humanity out of the equation. La La Land picks it right back up and threads it back in with a smile, a tear, a song, and a dance. It reminds us that there used to be a time when we could sit and enjoy a story about two people, desperately trying to live out their fantasies of a world long gone-by, who find something else, something better, in each other.
Go see La La Land. See it with your friends, with your parents, with your little sister, with your boyfriend or your girlfriend or hell, see it with your ex-boyfriend because you two are mature consenting adults and goddamnit you can maintain enough of a civil relationship to go see a movie together but don’t forget you’re still better off without that piece of shit. But please, make this film your priority. The people that made it for you sure did.