Synopsis – A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.
My Take – We are currently in an era of reinterpreting and rebooting old content, there hasn’t been much freshness in films for a long time. Films has been around long enough to have explored so many stories and techniques, and film audiences have seen more films than ever that it’s hard to come up with something that can leave an impression that lingers for days after watching. Having seen and loved Whiplash, I was really looking forward to Damien Chazelle‘s next film. The fact that it would be a musical with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone just made me super impatient to watch it. Oh I also love jazz so that just made it pretty much perfect. Expectations were sky high from this team and boy did they meet them. I’m happy to say, I was far from disappointed. Here director Chazelle has made an irresistible musical comedy-drama that serves up a real delight for the eyes and ears. If you haven’t heard of this film yet (where have you been?), I’m sure you will do in the coming months. From the films incredibly choreographed opening scene, the film becomes an eye catching, toe-tapping and most importantly of all joyous film going experience and the film transforms a story that at its core is rather generic into something else entirely, that will very likely place this one into the top echelon of cinematic musicals, as well as a classic of our time. Tonally, this film was very different from Whiplash, (one was an intense and dark psychological thriller whereas this was a brilliant, comedic, and emotional romance) but Chazelle‘s style can still be seen in this film. This film not only leaves a lingering impression, but it also gives you a feeling that you’re watching something that will be talked about for a long time. Sure, the film does take notes from the past, however, rather than rehashing another predictable, well-known story, it tells a honest story, which, when combined with the near-obsolete genre of jazz musical, has a lovely effect and is so fresh from what you seem today that it seems strangely, new. This is also attributed to the beautiful use of color and visuals, smooth, old-style camera-work, unexpected plot/editing, and just the right amount of special effects to make it special.
The story follows a jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and a waitress Mia (Emma Stone), who aims to break into the showbiz in the City of Angels, without ever compromising its realistic spin. While, Mia is an aspiring actress who keeps struggling from one audition to the next, her daytime job is working at a coffee shop in a studio lot where she can be near her dream, Sebastian is a dedicated jazz musician struggling to make ends meet, dreaming of someday running his own jazz club. Mia and Sebastian meet and fall for each other, but they live in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts. Together they continue to explore the joy and pain of pursuing their dreams. The most impressive thing about the film, for me, is just how daringly it dances between the old-fashioned “Singing’ In The Rain” style of musical, and a bolder, modern style. The song numbers are great and are an undoubted homage to classic musicals – a thoughtful mixture of old school dance numbers you’d expect from a musical in the 50s, and emotionally-wrenching ballads that hit you where it hurts; there is one particular sequence toward the end of the film which is a real gut-punch. Here, Damien Chazelle has found a way to reignite the general love for Los Angeles the way “Rebel Without a Cause” did decades ago, in fact, much of the film is more or less of an homage to that James Dean classic. The colors, the look, the design, the tone, even though it’s set in present day, the characters could’ve easily been transported from a golden age era. Fully embracing the widescreen splendor, the film’s winning opening gambit is a slithering singing- and-dancing sequence on the chockablock freeway choreographed in one dashing long shot. Then the film pans out its narration of an ever-typical girl-meet-boy story (in this case, it is the girl who makes the first move), divided by seasons with a winter-to-winter rotation, initially, the story bifurcates in two different forks until the two finally hit the ground running, interposed with scintillating music numbers which can hypnotically melt your heart and dazzle your mind. Chazelle adroitly centers on two protagonists through and through like in those vintage romantic flicks where you can see halos around them, anyone, anything else in their world has all duly faded into the dark background whenever their eyes meet, their hands touch, and they kiss. Neither life nor love goes smoothly for this pair of stubborn dreamers, but they sure do try hard at both. Mia continues working as a barista on the Warner Bros. studio lot and going to frustrating audition after frustrating audition. Eventually, she decides that her best way forward is to write, finance and produce a one-woman show which, fittingly, focuses on her experiences of leaving her hometown in Nevada and moving to L.A. to pursue her dreams. After dropping the humorously humiliating job where Mia sees him at their third encounter, Sebastian continues to hold fast to his dream of opening his own jazz club, but doesn’t really do much about it. He reluctantly takes a job on keys in a music group run by an old acquaintance (John Legend), but doesn’t enjoy it because they don’t play his style of pure jazz. Sebastian’s unhappiness turns to resentment and ends up being directed toward Mia, just as her show is about to open.
The eventual resolution of their love story and their individual pursuit of their dreams feels right for a film which celebrates dreamers, but shows what happens when life doesn’t go as we’ve planned. The lead characters may be struggling in certain fields but it is their dreams they are chasing at the end of the day. Something we all have done or are in the process of doing. This makes you quickly feel like you know these people and what they’re going through. Throw in some comedy, love, drama and magical soundtracks as well as sequences and you have yourself a masterpiece. Alongside DOP Linus Sandgren (whose work here may well lead to a hefty individual awards haul this season), and genuinely the whole team behind this production, Chazelle has crafted up that rare film beast, a unique tapestry of brilliance that practically bounces along frame to frame and is matched majestically by its two leads, who in turn give us a duo of characters we are unlikely to forget anytime soon. What also helps is a beautiful score and extremely well written songs. I found myself humming “City of Stars” all night long, already saving the soundtrack on every music platform I could. The music and dance numbers are a perfect blend of Gene Kelly musicals and more contemporary stuff like Chicago. The production design helps with this with bright, vivid colors abound from the walls of a passing building to Emma Stone‘s dress. However, the film does have one flaw – the absence of conflict. Conflict is necessary in any film and with romantic films, the conflict is usually somewhere out of left field and is usually the low point. This film, despite everything else, is no different. The problem is, why we are made aware of what may have caused the major rift, but there is no exact detail. Did they grow apart, did their careers just consume so much of their time they broke up and decided to become friends? Friends which kept aware of what the other was doing but didn’t have much communication, this isn’t answered. We are just teased with a possible way the film could end which for some maybe unrealistic. Tasked with not only reigniting the chemistry they shared in the likable 2011 romantic comedy Crazy Stupid Love and the 2013 Gangster Squad but pulling off the unenviable task of singing and dancing their way into the filmgoers hearts, Emma Stone as the big dreaming wannabe actress Mia and Ryan Gosling as jazz loving hard-done-by musician Sebastian make for a lovable on screen duo whose relationship together is all at once alluring, believable and at times heartbreaking. Ryan Gosling and especially Emma Stone were absolutely astounding. Both of the stars were able to authentically portray such a vast range of emotion as well as deliver great musical performances. The chemistry between the two actors was great. Gosling and Stone were able to believably play off of one another and it made for an entertaining and emotionally engaging relationship to watch unfold. In smaller roles, John Legend & J.K. Simmons are likable. On the whole, ‘La La Land’ is amazing, alluring, magnificent, and emotional making for an unforgettable cinematic experience.
Directed – Damien Chazelle
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 128 minutes