Film Review: La La Land (2016)

Dir: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
Runtime: 2h 8m
Music: Pasek and Paul (lyrics) Justin Hurwitz (score)

WARNING: This review contains potential SPOILERS for general plot details. MAJOR SPOILERS (likely pertaining to the ending of the film) will be forewarned in BOLD and under a “Read More.”

1Sheet_Master.qxdOne of my local movie theaters runs a promotion called Tightwad Tuesdays, so when the Damien Chazelle helmed musical/romance film La La Land finally arrived in my area, I snagged tickets a week in advance. It’s a sweet deal ($6 tickets, cheaper popcorn) but often, when I indulge in Tuesday screening, it’s not unbearably crowded. In fact, when my mom and I went to see Cinderella one Tuesday afternoon in 2015, we were the only two people in the theater. Usually, it’s not that slow, but I had never seen it packed.

This past Tuesday, my mom and I arrived at the theater about fifteen minutes early for our 1:15 showing, got our popcorn (and our annual popcorn bucket, complete with Matt Damon’s face to promote The Great Wall), and when we got into the theater, it was already at half-capacity. By the time the previews started, almost every seat was taken, save the front two neck-breaking rows of seats where no one sits anyway. Granted, I was the youngest person there by a significant margin, but I suppose the positive reception to the film had managed to saturate my sleepy little Pennsylvania town.

I have been wanting to see this film since I saw the first trailer and the buzz began to spread earlier in the year. Anticipation heightened my expectations, and I was not disappointed. I was charmed from the first notes of the opening number, and stayed captivated throughout; this film is truly deserving of its Golden Globes sweep.

La La Land is primarily focused on the romance between Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist with dreams of “saving jazz” and opening his own club, and Mia (Emma Stone), a barista and aspiring actress who endures several failed auditions in her efforts to kick-start a career. As their romance unfolds over the course of a year, they attempt to navigate the obstacles and challenges of life in “La La Land” and strive to make their dreams come true.

The opening act of the film is an homage to classic Hollywood musicals, with infectiously-catchy songs like “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd,” but while one foot is tapping jauntily to the beat, the other remains planted in “reality.” The film does a fair job of lending itself to nostalgia (in a relatively self-aware manner) but still manages to divert from well-worn paths to break new ground. For example, the charming song and tap-dance number “A Lovely Night,” reminiscent of classic films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952), is a whimsical scene, playing on the “two leads bicker while denying obvious chemistry” trope, but the number is interrupted by the chime of an iPhone. If that’s not a modern, relatable mood-killer, I don’t know what is.

The first arc the film portrays the rush of a new, passionate romance, while still managing to poke a bit of fun at itself, but it’s almost too much like a fantasy. I mean, no one breaks into spontaneous dance numbers while gazing out across the city skyline, and while literally dancing among the stars is a dream come true for the romantic soul in all of us (and my favorite sequence in the film), it’s not physically possible. It’s an idealization; a culmination of “Hollywood” romance.

The second act is where reality sets in, and the film hits a different, more grounded note. There are fewer musical numbers, save the now Golden Globe winning “City of Stars” and John Legend’s “Start a Fire,” as Seb and Mia start to face professional and personal challenges. The mood of the film shifts from the playful tone of new romance to something a bit more real, and though some of the magic fades, it is a reflection of life, of a relationship that has left the honeymoon stage and is now encountering obstacles as both characters try to achieve their respective dreams.

Together, both the vibrant opening act of the film and pragmatic second half manage to strike a balance between expectations/reality, and though the tone of the narrative evolves to suit the course of their relationship, it doesn’t disrupt the plot or flow of the film overall. Without revealing too much of the specific events of the film, I’ll say that La La Land hits a lot of high notes; I enjoyed the lighthearted, humorous moments, the romance, the instrumental interludes, and the emotional scenes.

As far as music goes, the songs are a significant part of what makes the film so magical; it’s easily my favorite score of the year and my personal front-runner for the Oscar. I, like Mia, didn’t even really like jazz all that much going into the film, but I came out of the theater with the tunes whirling around in my head, and I had to suppress the urge to dance on my way to the car. Here it is, a few days later, and I’m still humming the theme. Highlights for me were “City of Stars,” “A Lovely Night,” and the instrumental pieces, “Planetarium” and “Epilogue.” Hurwitz’s score flirts heavily with an old-school sound, complete with Disney-esque trills and chimes that made me half-expect Bambi to come prancing onscreen, but it adds a modern, jazzy undercurrent that makes it less saccharine. The lyrics of each song, written by Pasek and Paul, are also worth re-examining upon completion of the film; some lines take on new significance after viewing the final sequences.

I also appreciate that Gosling and Stone, while not “powerhouse” vocalists, sound like real people signing instead of trained professionals – though Stone totally killed it in “Audition.” It made them seem more genuine, and I thought both of their performances (in song and dance, especially with those extremely long takes) were stellar – the acclaim they’ve been getting is well-deserved. As far as the characters go, I thought both Mia and Seb were well-developed and written; their personalities complemented one another, and their chemistry throughout the film is palpable. Mia learns to appreciate new things through Seb’s influence, and vice versa, and they grow and change in a believable way as the film unfolds. There are so many iterations of “struggling musician” and “barista/actress” out there, it could have easily tumbled into a mess of cliches, yet Gosling and Stone each brought a fresh perspective to their roles. The film is their film, and they are the true beating heart of it all, but the supporting cast (J.K. Simmons, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, etc) are great, despite limited screen time.

Visually, the film is stunning, with amazing costumes, set design, and effects – as I mentioned, the “Planetarium” sequence is my favorite part and I might go see the film again just to see it on the big screen one more time. The cinematography is great, with the exception of a few panning shots that came across blurry, like a carousel going too fast. The use of long, uninterrupted takes for the song and dance numbers was superb. Color is used in a way that reflects the passing of the seasons and the emotional tone of the film, and it also helped enhance the dreamlike quality of many sequences.

All in all, La La Land is a well-written film that is beautiful to look at, but it’s much more than a pretty blend of color and song; all of the components – acting, music, pacing, plot – function collectively to create an engrossing story about love and life in the “City of Stars”, which, although it might partially rely on nostalgia and ideas we’ve seen onscreen thousands of times before, also puts a new spin on classic themes. It is an ode to “those who dream,” and a reminder that there might be “someone in the crowd” who can completely change your life. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go put the soundtrack on repeat for the next several days.

Overall rating: 9/10

 DISCUSSION OF THE ENDING IS UNDER THE “READ MORE”, STOP NOW IF YOU WISH TO REMAIN SPOILER FREE.

I’ll admit, I briefly raged “I WAS ROOTING FOR YOU, DAMMIT” when the “Five Years Later” segment came up and it was revealed that Mia had married someone else. And when she sees the sign for Seb’s club, utilizing the design she’d made for him, I almost broke. But the emotional floodgates burst open in earnest when Seb and Mia’s eyes met at the club, and continued to shatter when Seb starts to play the piano, and the “what could have been” sequence unfurls in glorious fashion.

At the end of the film, Mia and Seb see what their lives could have been like if everything had gone “right;” if Seb had followed Mia to Paris, if he hadn’t brushed her off after their first encounter, if he hadn’t missed her play, if they’d struck all the right notes instead of the discordant few that led to the deterioration of their relationship. But, while the montage is packed with gorgeous imagery that tugs at the heartstrings, it simultaneously creates an impression that it’s all a lush blend of beauty and color, and nothing more than a dream. It’s meant to show how they could have, under different circumstances, ended up together, but it also implies that, if their lives had taken that route, Seb would not have gotten to open his own club. Ultimately, it demonstrates how unlikely it is for somebody to “have it all,” even in a film that seems so influenced by classic movies/musicals that project the “all your dreams can come true” ideal. Instead, through this last grand, heartbreaking sequence, La La Land is telling us that while dreams can come true, it is often not without loss or sacrifice.

Seb and Mia reflecting on what “could have been” isn’t necessarily a lamentation regarding what “should have happened,” and ultimately, I think it makes the ending of the film much stronger. Mia and Seb might not have ended up together, but they both achieved their dreams after making difficult choices, and helped one another to do so. And I got the impression, from that final, shared smile and glance across the crowded club, that both Mia and Sebastian would “do it again,” regardless of the outcome. It’s a bittersweet moment, but I didn’t interpret any regret; only a mutual acknowledgment and appreciation of their influence on one another. Seb learned to compromise on his staunch stance on jazz, and Mia was encouraged to persevere, even after failure. They are both better for knowing one another, and for having their time together, even if their dream could not last. The ending delivers a much more impactful message than a standard, fairytale ending would have, and the film is better for it.

And yes, I cried. But not in a “NOOOOOO!!!” way, in an “Oh, that was so beautiful…” way. The ending hits hard, but even if it brings tears, it makes me want to see it all over again.

 

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