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I grew up with music. It was everywhere in my house, with walls of LP records stuffed with names I didn’t know were already jazz legends but would come to be a significant part of my developing years. Jazz became a sort of gateway to other genres and while it swooned in and out my life like the tides, it remains to this day a passion that moves me whenever I hear it. Somewhat ironically though, I also grew to dislike the standard musical film, and it has only been recently that I’ve begun to find some hope of gleaning any love for it, though misfires like the latest Les Misérables only served to push me further away.
And so it was that there was not much expectation in getting through La La Land, a stage-like jazz musical that harkens back to the golden age of the genre while bringing in some modern flare along the way. But about twenty minutes in, something happened. I was having a good time. Not only that, I was swept up in the story, and the songs and the dances were not distractions but powerful movements that elevated the emotions of these few characters to great heights of joy and lows of sadness. Surely, this is what most musicals accomplish with all their fans, but for me, La La Land became a kind of revelation. This is not just a film nor a musical. This is something so honestly genuine, it aches in ways the movies have rarely done for me before. It restores my faith that there still is great creativity in Hollywood just waiting to burst if the right people and support make it work. La La Land is easily one the best pictures of the year and the most refreshing cinematic experience I’ve had at the movies in a long time.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who gained high praise for his Oscar-winning film, Whiplash, La La Land follows the romantic collision of two young and hungry artists looking to make their dreams come true in a town where dreams are all everyone has. Mia (Emma Stone) is a barista at an on-set coffee shop diligently running through an endless cycle of failed auditions, but believes she can find success with a one-woman show she has written. She has a brief road-rage-ish encounter with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who is a purist at heart, a man who clings to the old style while wondering why it’s dying in the present.
They meet again at a piano-themed restaurant when he is fired for refusing to play simple seasonal tunes instead of passionate jazz, but before he is, wins Mia’s favor as she hears the passion in his work. Not long after, they meet again and this time, there are sparks and the two begin a romance that tries to keep their journeys on track while building a life together. Naturally, it’s not so easy, and as commitments and needs both separate them and distance themselves from the hopes they once clung too, their love is challenged in complicated ways.
All of this is woven together with musical moments where they break into song and light dance numbers, sometimes with the world around them joining the choreography. Separated by title-card labeled sections named for each season, what makes this come together so well is Chazelle’s startling direction and ability to merge the narrative and songs into a singular cohesive experience. From the magnificent opening number on a wide-open highway clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic to a heart-breaking solo by Mia in a cramped audition room, every song is a transition that lifts the film to new heights. Neither Stone nor Gosling are stage musical performers and as such, their work is purposefully a little rough, especially in their early numbers, which are meant to metaphorically be the bumps and missteps of a new relationship. From there to what it becomes is a breathtakingly beautiful visual and musical odyssey that mesmerizes with each passing frame.
Gosling and Stone, who have worked together (and played romantic interests) in three films now, have never been better. It’s not just the chemistry that the two have clearly well-established, but an authenticity to the pair that make you yearn to see them together. Stone, who has time and time again proven herself an actor of remarkable talents, makes a leap into the stratosphere here, so emotionally compelling, she holds scenes together with only a simple glance from her wide, affecting eyes. Her aforementioned solo is a cinematic stroke of pure movie magic, and should define her career for years to come.
The message is clear in La La Land, one that it never once tries to hide. Our dreams are what make the human experience so unique and the film reminds us of how delicate they truly are. We must keep singing and keep dancing in this life, to find the good moments within the days and nights and to cherish that which we have and the hopes we hold on to. La La Land is a place where we should all spend a little more time.
Movie description: La La Land is a 2016 musical romantic drama about a musician and an actress who meet and fall in love in Los Angeles while both try to chase their dreams.
Director(s): Damien Chazelle
Actor(s): Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
Genre: Musical, Drama