An edited version of this review appears in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.
There was a moment as I was taking in Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” at my screening, an ironic occurrence that perhaps perfectly encapsulates why this movie is so necessary nearly two decades into the 21st century.
It was one of the quieter moments of the film, as our characters Mia and Sebastian were contemplating the current state of their ambitions. Out of nowhere, the theater shook, with the boisterous, bass-heavy interruptions of whatever was playing in the next screen over.
It lasted for a few minutes, and returned at some scattered points later. It wasn’t a welcome intrusion, but it certainly wasn’t enough to detract from the experience provided by “La La Land.” Afterwards, I would see that the movie so keen to make its presence known was the fifth entry in the “Underworld” franchise, one that – like many other modern Hollywood offerings – has found solace in becoming an unremarkable attack on the senses.
“La La Land” couldn’t be more different, through its style nor its effect. It’s comparatively much more intimate than what was playing next door, yet its confident spirit was indomitable in a way movies simply aren’t anymore. Its spirit soared.
Chazelle takes the acute direction he utilized for 2015’s “Whiplash” – one of the most memorable works of that year – and infuses it with even more ambition and charisma. The result is “La La Land,” a film that is van Gogh’s “Starry Night” come to life. It represents a genre-reinvigorating tribute to the musicals of 60 years ago, as well as a timeless story of romance, dreams, and what happens when the two collide.
The film grabs our attention from the onset, via a musical number that slowly escalates until it becomes one of the most exuberant sequences of anything in film this year. From that point on, it was hard to get rid of the smile on my face and the glee that the film so warmly injects the audience with.
The aspiring actress Mia is played by Emma Stone, in a turn that is remarkable and poignant. She seems so natural here, dancing as though she came straight from the stage and singing the movie’s most memorable tunes.
Ryan Gosling stars opposite her as Sebastian, a pianist concerned with the impending extinction of traditional jazz. He has his moments as well, but his performance feels comparatively subdued by some margin, as if he’s playing a particular version of himself with a charm that feels all too familiar.
When the two cross paths, their story begins, and it’s an enchanting experience to be had.
At one point Sebastian asks a friend, “Why do you say ‘romantic’ like it’s a dirty word?” It certainly isn’t for Chazelle, as he combines the charm of a stage play with a film camera’s potential, which this film somehow shows it still untapped. It swirls and it twirls as its own dancer, without ever becoming too much for our eyes to handle.
The visuals are magical, from the way lone spotlights are utilized to when our lovers seem to take to the cosmos. The sum of all this? The very definition of what makes life romantic.
It goes without saying that, musically, “La La Land” is a marvel. The Oscar-worthy score has a demanding presence that, with the incorporated dance numbers, provide a wealth of memorable moments that we simply don’t see out of contemporary Hollywood anymore. It gives a new meaning to “spectacle” at a time in the cinematic landscape when the word has become too much associated with overindulgence and gratuity.
It always seems like an effortless endeavor when filmmakers continue to test the technological limits of what a movie can do, but here you can sense that there was real passion involved, resulting in emotionally stirring instances of breaking out into song and dance.
The score’s strongest notes work to convey the moods of particular scenes in a way that is so graceful and organic that you’d forget there is little to no dialogue involved at times. It’s that engrossing, and might entice you to hunt for old jazz records after leaving the theater.
A sharp ear might also notice the subtle returns of the film’s main theme. It almost becomes its own character, surveilling Mia and Sebastian as the sparks between them fly, and even when they begin to doubt the possibility of their original ambitions.
That’s another thing to appreciate about “La La Land.” It has a story to tell, and it doesn’t waver in that regard. This is a cautionary tale by Chazelle, who also wrote the film, balancing joyous optimism with the realities of what happens when we yearn to make our dreams a reality. We remember that in doing so, we will stumble along the way, and sometimes we might not get up on the same path.
In some ways, Chazelle is making a similar commentary on the state of cinema today. One scene in “La La Land” includes a rather explicit critique of the modern moviegoing experience, and the sense of magic that has perhaps been lost along the way.
Chazelle may believe he has performed a duty by demanding our attention with a wholly unique and emotionally satisfying experience. But not in years has the nature of a film’s very existence echoed its themes so profoundly.
In “La La Land,” Los Angeles is full of risks. But it’s also a world with so much wonder and vigor that we just have to get lost in it, despite the stumbles we might take.
“La La Land” is rated PG-13 for some language
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons
Directed by Damien Chazelle