Movie Review: La La Land

From the writer and director that brought both nail-biting tension and riveting emotion to one of his first features in 2014's Oscar-winning indie film Whiplash, the latest passion project from director Damien Chazelle reels in just as much charismatic talent as Whiplash, while also delivering another fantastic tale of love and high hopes. With its musical premise managing to keep itself methodically contained within its centralized plot of two dreams who fall in love in the City of Angels, and its cast shining just as bright as the city, La La Land delivers just the right amount of magic and passion to easily make it one of the top treasures of this year.

When the sprawling path of an aspiring Hollywood actress named Mia (Emma Stone) suddenly crosses with that of a down-on-his-luck jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), as the two find themselves drained of all hope in their careers, a riotous adventure of song and dance unfolds after the two become entangled in each other's lives. As Mia places her trust in Sebastian, just as he embarks on one of the biggest decisions of his career, the two struggle to balance both their towering ambitions and their love for one another. But can true love survive if your dreams take you to the stars?

After the fascinating tale of a tormented young drummer falling under the pressure of his intense instructor in Whiplash manifested into one of the best films of 2014, since then I had been eagerly awaiting the next project from writer/director Damien Chazelle. When I caught my first glimpse of the starry-eyed musical of La La Land, I saw not the work of Chazelle, but rather some riotous new concoction from director Woody Allen. I was taken aback when I realized it was Chazelle, and that it was actually not the first jazz musical the 31-year-old had brought to the screen. With his 2009 film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench slipping almost criminally under my nose, I was instantly intriguing in the prospects of his third feature, La La Land, to be another hit. While Whiplash took almost a taut thriller feel set to the beat of a snare drum, La La Land was not your typical sing-song musical, but rather an endearing and emotional drama, just with a piano-playing Ryan Gosling.  

Settling in for what I thought to be a gracious mix of Woody Allen satire and brilliant visual storytelling, with an elegant mix of the ambitious filmmaking of Damien Chazelle, it was hard not to fall instantly in love with La La Land. While its opening scene may have promised us another flamboyant film of fast-paced songs and little of much else, the film took an entirely different approach, as it didn't rely merely on a massive ensemble of musicians to keep it alive, but rather the dynamic charisma and passion of its leading duo. While past movie musicals like Les Miserables and Rock of Ages may have taken their stage productions and glamorously translated them to the screen, La La Land presented something entirely new, intermingling dialogue and song beautifully like they were one and the same. 

While the film's soundtrack may be one of its many highlights, first I must talk about the faces of the film, beginning with its sensational duo. While Damien Chazelle could have easily gotten any number of on-screen lovers to play Mia and Sebastian, there was certain elegance -- and obviousness -- in courting the likes of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Playing lovers in three films now, including 2011's rom-com Crazy, Stupid, Love and the 2013 thriller Gangster Squad, it was no surprise when I saw the two frolicking together once more under the Los Angeles moon. While I already suspected that the duo could do no wrong -- with their combined wit and chemistry already proving to be a beast all their own -- the two of them provided the film was a fantastic array of charm and vulnerability that made their characters fascinating to watch. While the likes of John Legend and J.K. Simmons may steal the spotlight at times, it's Stone and Gosling's breathtaking chemistry and humanistic performances that really stole the show.

Another beast of the film had to be its dream-like Los Angeles atmosphere. Whether we find our leads waltzing across a neighborhood street with the starry night as their backdrop, or floating among said stars in the fluttering realm of a planetarium, the cinematography and direction of the film allowed audiences into the true "La La Land" -- a fantastic other-worldly dimension where dreams, love, and everything else is merely a mystery. While our leading duo struggle to find themselves and the passion they harbor within, the mystifying and colorful backdrop of the film stirs the mind of the viewer, and pushes them to expect something, when ultimately something unexpected is about to occur. While its bright set pieces of an almost-fantasy City of Angels might lose others in terms of practicality and purpose, for me, the captivating visual storytelling employed by Chazelle and Company bring the film into a new light -- one that makes its characters feel all the more real.

With its brilliant score and soundtrack giving way to not just your average movie musical -- where sing-song antics play out in an almost unrealistic persuasion -- but rather a calm stream of foot-tapping consciousness that flowed nearly parallel to its character's actions and dialogue, La La Land employed a breathtaking set of melodies that worked to not only to pave way for its plot, but also to pay homage to one of the greatest genres of music -- Jazz. While the film may utilize a dash of flamboyant and riotous musical numbers, some of its best scenes are accompanied by a score of classic jazz. Breathing life into not only the film and its characters, but most likely anybody in the theater who's not much of a jazz fan, the film's swinging throwback to the jazz age, as well as its beautiful little numbers like "City of Stars", made for an entertaining, dream-like dive into the past.

While La La Land may not be the most memorable movie musical there ever was, nor the most original love story we'll ever see, Damien Chazelle's phenomenal follow-up to Whiplash proved once again that he is a force to be reckoned with. With effective performances by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, a breathtaking palette of songs and cinematography, and an captivating tale of fluttering ambitions and love-struck hearts, La La Land was without a doubt one of the most beautiful films of the year.

I gave La La Land an 8 out of 10 for its charming and passionate cast, its jazz-infused soundtrack, and its magnificent portrait of the fantasy we can find ourselves in when the real world is at our throats.   

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