REVIEW: “La La Land”

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With 2014’s “Whiplash” Damien Chazelle cemented his place among the most promising up-and-coming filmmakers. After its release few could question the 31 year-old’s deep and sincere affection for music. His affection is made even clearer with his latest film, the bold, audacious, and utterly delightful “La La Land”. It kind of makes sense he is jazz drummer himself.

Hype can be a tricky thing. It certainly spawned a ton of enthusiasm for “La La Land” which is interesting since it was destined to resonate with some while disappointing others. I was somewhere in the middle straddling the fence between nostalgic curiosity and skepticism. But regardless of where you stand, no one can deny this was an ambitious and gutsy undertaking especially in today’s movie culture.

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“La La Land” is Chazelle’s tribute to the classic MGM musicals and the profound cinematic voices they once shared. At the same time I was surprised to find an oddly bewildering modern flavor making this much more than a simple nostalgia piece. It’s just as much an ode to those who leave their comforts in pursuit of their artistic dreams. In one of the film’s key songs, Emma Stone’s character Mia describes it like this “Here’s to the ones who dream. Foolish, as they may seem.”

Here’s the funny thing – the scene I’ve heard praised the loudest is the one I’m the most mixed on. It’s the opening sequence, a spontaneous musical number on a clogged Los Angeles freeway ramp. I actually like the spontaneity. It’s as if Chazelle is setting the parameters for the audience and wiping the table of any uncertainty. It’s a bold and confident opening choice which I appreciate. I do love the the song “Another Day of Sun” and we get variations of it throughout the film. I didn’t quite go for the messy mish-mash of dance styles. The true highlight of the scene is how it’s shot – in a long flowing take that weaves in and out of stalled traffic and energetic dancers. It’s something to behold.

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The scene leads to the first meeting between two struggling artists, Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Mia dreams of being an actress but working in a studio lot’s coffee shop is as close as she has come. Sebastian is stuck playing piano in dingy bars but dreams of opening his own traditional jazz club in LA. Their first meeting is…less than cordial, but they keep crossing paths almost as if fate has something in store for them. Some snappy dance numbers and one spark of romance later and Chazelle has all of his pieces in place.

The further “La La Land” goes the more it resembles the classic musicals it draws from. The vibrant colors, dazzling spectacle, catchy tunes, Mandy Moore’s snappy, choreography – it all hearkens back to MGM’s heyday. At the same time I can’t overstate how fresh and original this feels. Chazelle quite literally revitalizes a forgotten genre and injects it with new energy. And if that weren’t enough he also tells a charming love story that’s maintains a plausibility within this dreamy world. It’s also unexpectedly bittersweet and laced with the perfect dosage of melancholy.

And then there is Chazelle’s Fred and Ginger. This is Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s third film together. Performance-wise Stone is the standout. It’s a performance rich with feeling and sincerity. It also doesn’t hurt that song and dance have been a part of her life since childhood. You can tell. But she also adds a surprising amount of weight to the dramatic moments which is key to them working so well. It’s a lovely well-rounded performance.

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Gosling is another story. Let me be clear, he’s not “bad” here, but it is yet another performance plagued by the same Gosling problem. Pulling emotion from him is like getting the last bit of juice from an orange. You squeeze as hard as you can but you only get drops. Gosling gives merely drops of feeling even during his dance numbers. It seems as if the character is written with Gosling’s limitations in mind which saves him a bit, but just a touch more charisma would have been nice. To be fair Gosling has his moments especially when he flashes his dry sense of humor.

Chazelle has a lot to juggle which makes his achievement with “La La Land” that much more impressive. I hate to incorporate such an overused adjective but ‘magical’ is a perfectly fitting description. As it started I felt oddly out of place, but soon I was swept away by the the dazzling, joyous, smile-inducing production. My skepticism quickly gave way to exhilaration. Now I’m not naive enough to say everyone will share my reaction. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I left the theater in an unusually happy state and “La La Land” has been dancing in the back of my mind ever since.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS4.5 STARS

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43 thoughts on “REVIEW: “La La Land”

    • Yuck! Hope your doing better. This thing is intoxicating. Saw it a second time today and now I’m wishing I had put it higher in my Best of 2016 list.

  1. For me, this film was a revelation. I can’t think of another movie from this year that had more of a profound impact on me. I’m glad to see that you loved it, as well!

    • Man, I adored it. So much so that I’m going to make an adjustment to my Top 10. I can’t help it. I went and saw it again yesterday and it blew me away. The second viewing brought out so much more that Chazelle is going for. Simply put, I adore this film.

      Oh, and not sure about there, but the theaters are selling out around here. Word of mouth is really driving this thing which is wonderful to hear.

      • Exactly. This has got to be one of my new, all-time favorite films. Everything about it worked for me. I drove 3 hours to see it, and would have driven 3 more if I had to. I can’t wait until it expands, and I can see it many more times in the theaters. It certainly deserves success!

      • And I bet you agree here – Chazelle has done something magnificent. He has taken a once popular but buried genre and revitalized it. And considering the movie-watching culture of 2016 I would have never expected a feel-good classic styled musical to be so exhilarating. He nails everything that made them so popular in their heyday and tells a beautiful bittersweet story in the process.

      • Definitely. It’s so surprising for a director at such a young age to be able to make a film that strikes the perfect balance between nostalgia and modern day. It’s so bittersweet, so heartbreaking, and so uplifting. By far my favorite film of the year!

  2. I tried all winter break to get to the theater to see it. I finally got to the ticket counter yesterday, and it was sold out. Sigh. I’ll see it, for sure, but it was a bummer. I loved Whiplash and can’t wait to see how Chazelle juggles it all. Not much of an Emma Stone fan. Gosling, as you’ve hinted, can seem wooden at times, and West Side Story is my second favorite movie of all time–so, I’m sure I’m in for a treat. Nice review, Keith.

    • Thank Cindy. I’ve been a bit mixed on Stone too. She knocks it out of the park here. Really surprised at how much I loved her performance. I’ve seen this twice and the second viewing was even more exhilarating than the first. During the second viewing the music itself stood out more to be. So old school but with a modern flavor. Absolutely brilliant.

    • Thanks so much Brittani. It is essential viewing. My little girl now wants to see it which gives me an excuse to see it a third time. That won’t be a chore! I love this film and it has been dancing in my mind since I last saw it!

      As for theaters, I COMPLETELY feel your pain!

    • Thanks Ruth. I’ve seen this film three times now (just adore it). The more I’ve seen it the more I appreciate elements of Gosling’s performance. But I still think showing emotion is beyond his abilities. And in almost every movie it’s the same issue.

      • “…showing emotion is beyond his abilities” Mwahahaha! That’s what I said in my review too, Keith. He has the most expressionless face, yet people think he’s a good actor, huh??

    • What’s great is that it doesn’t lose its magic after a second and even a third viewing. It’s joyously intoxicating. I just love it and really feel the urge to bump it up on my recently posted Top 10 of 2016 list. I can’t get it out of my head.

      And Happy New Year to you as well!

  3. Truely Magical it was. That piano music, I just cant get over.
    I think Gosling’s character was someone who didnt express that well so he fits the best. I kinda liked his performance.

  4. I wrote a review about La La Land only yesterday, and completely agree with you about Ryan Gosling. I couldn’t find the words to write about it but I really think you’ve hit the nail on the head. He is in no way a bad performer, and I was surprised at how well he could dance. He seems to hold himself well in front of the camera and is very natural. However, he’s just a little bit underwhelming in my opinion, and was overshadowed by Emma Stone. I think that her audition scene at the end was incredible, as someone who NEVER cries in films (only ever once, ironically it was the Notebook!), she really moved me. Love your review!

    http://www.sleeplongdreamdeep.wordpress.com

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. Gosling has a big following but I’ve never been impressed with his acting. He really struggles with emoting. It works in some roles better than others. Here he gets by just because his character isn’t one to show much emotion. But when he tries, he doesn’t hold a candle to Stone.

      Look forward to reading your review.

      • Completely agree, I find him overrated! I can see the appeal, and I appreciate how he’s not the conventional Hollywood male actor. I’ve just never been particularly drawn to him, and think that Stone did overshadow him just a bit in La La Land.

  5. Pingback: Movie Review – La La Land

  6. I really like your review but do feel somehow it misses the point of Gosling’s performance. I thought the final scenes with him at the piano were full of emotion. Overall, La La Land was a great film!

    • I would say those final scenes are his best. I also think there is merit to the argument that his character Seb is a very reserved, closed-off guy. In that way Gosling’s performance kinda fits it. I’ve seen La La Land two more times since this review. Despite some issues I do appreciate his performance more now.

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