5 out of 5 stars.
“La La Land” opens with a long tracking shot, the camera moving along bumper-to-bumper traffic on a Los Angeles freeway, a cacophony of sounds and different music emanating from each vehicle—a fairly typical scene, until, one by one, people leap out of their cars, jumping on top of them and dancing exuberantly right there on the highway. It’s a joyous opening music number that, before we’ve even been introduced to the two lead characters, perfectly establishes the half-real, half-fantasy world this musical romance takes place in.
Directed and written by Damien Chazelle (who broke out a couple years ago with his stellar debut feature “Whiplash), “La La Land” follows Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), two young LA residents struggling with their own hopes and dreams. Mia is a barista on the Warner Brothers lot, but wants to be an actress. She attends audition after audition, but nothing ever comes of them. Sebastian is a pianist who wants to open his own jazz club. But he’s currently struggling to hold a job, as anytime he is hired to play certain material, he just wants to take off and do his own thing. They meet over Mia’s attraction to his music, although their relationship isn’t exactly amicable at first. Romance eventually blooms, however, and they serve as a source of inspiration to each other, but soon their attempts to pursue their dreams clash with their relationship.
One of the most astounding things about “La La Land” is how it manages to be an ode to the past while remaining firmly grounded in the present. Chazelle, who has proven on multiple occasions how well-versed in film history he is, uses a lot of techniques established during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the result is a modern tale that also has that dreamlike quality that has been hard to find in any movie musical made past the 1950s. We know that we’re in for something special when the film opens with the vintage Cinemascope logo—in fact, Chazelle shot the film in the same aspect ratio as Cinemascope. He also makes use of a lot of long tracking shots, especially during the musical numbers. Take, for instance, the scene where Mia and Sebastian tap dance while singing “A Lovely Night,” the setting sun against the LA cityscape in the background. Instead of cutting back and forth, it’s one long take, allowing the viewer to really be immersed in the number, in the manner of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals of the 1930s. At one point, Sebastian dances among a colorful assortment of film sets, not unlike Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain.”
Chazelle uses these techniques to both tell his story and pay homage to great films of the past. The film references scattered throughout the movie are almost too numerous to count on just one viewing. Some are literal, like when Mia and Sebastian go watch “Rebel Without a Cause” at the old Rialto Theatre. Mia also cites watching old movies with her aunt as her inspiration to become an actress; she has numerous movie posters, including a huge poster of Ingrid Bergman, in her bedroom. In fact, we see images of and hear references to Bergman a couple more times throughout the film. Some of the references aren’t as obvious. When Mia and Sebastian walk through the Warner Brothers lot, she points out the window where Humphrey Bogart stood with Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca.” It’s a foreshadowing of the end of the movie, which is reminiscent of Bogart and Bergman’s encounter in Rick’s Café in that film.
Chazelle also manages to make Los Angeles—a town often known for being dirty, smoggy, touristy, and overall existing on the sketchy side—beautiful. Through a color scheme ranging from soft pastels to bold primary hues, he paints the city as a fantasy land, a place where dreams really could come true. He makes use of several LA landmarks, some of which, like the Rialto, are no longer in operation, but the most beautiful parts involve the Griffith Observatory, which is situated high over Los Angeles, providing sweeping views of the city. The scene inside the planetarium, in which Mia and Sebastian float into the air and dance among the stars, is nothing short of magical.
The film’s songs and score (composed by Justin Hurwitz with lyrics by Pasek and Paul) are of a dreamy, romantic quality that enhance the look and feel of the film. A lot of it is jazz-infused, correlating with Sebastian’s love for jazz, but a lot of it also feels like the sort of swing music you’d find in those 1930s musicals, with the huge opening ensemble number more reminiscent of later films. There’s not a bad song in the bunch, although Stone takes the cake with her emotional rendition of the ballad “Audition” in the film’s climax. It’s important to remember that “La La Land” is an original musical, and that Hollywood hasn’t had one of those in a long time. Movie musicals are few and far between nowadays, and almost all of them are either remakes or adaptations of existing Broadway shows, like “Les Miserables” or “Into the Woods.” We go into “La La Land” not knowing any of the songs, but still form a connection to these characters and this story through the wonderful music.
The principal cast is very small, with almost the whole film concentrating solely on Mia and Sebastian. Stone and Gosling, who have starred together in several films prior to this one, have established a rapport that works well, and their chemistry lights up the screen. They both handle the song-and-dance side of the film with ease (Gosling even learned to tap dance and play piano specifically for this role). The cast also includes John Legend as Keith, a jazz guitarist who wants Sebastian to tour with his band, and J.K. Simmons (who won an Oscar for his role in Chazelle’s “Whiplash”) makes a brief but memorable appearance as a club owner who fires Sebastian for not sticking to the setlist.
The story of two people in LA chasing their dreams isn’t something we haven’t heard before, and maybe that’s what makes “La La Land” not quite the masterpiece it clearly wants to be. But Chazelle transcends any clichés that may have arisen from his story by crafting a beautiful musical, heavily steeped in film history, around it. It’s the sort of film that doesn’t get made anymore, but as Chazelle proves here, it’s the sort of film that can not only be relevant to modern audiences, but has a hopeful message we need to see more of.
Runtime: 128 minutes. Rated PG-13.