Saturday, December 31, 2016

Review - La La Land

We all know the how the showbiz story goes: Boy and girl meet, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl's careers diverge. It's a sturdy formula that the movies have retooled and retold a million times, from the silent escapades of Show People to the melodramatic tumult of A Star is Born (all three of them, and counting) to the worldly post-modernism of Annie Hall to the silent escapades of The Artist – Funny how things come full circle.

Point being, if you want to play that old song again, you need to riff; Improvise; Make it special. Fortunately for hopeless romantics everywhere, 32 year old writer/director Damien Chazelle is indeed a special talent, who has now performed a spectacular riff on the 'Hollywood love story' in La La Land;
A dazzling musical ode to a city, to a genre, and to anyone who ever dared to dream large and love larger.
It was Chazelle's sizzling sophomore feature Whiplash that put him on the map two years ago, snagging a trio of Oscars and topping this critic's 'Best of 2014' list. So when it was announced that his next dream was to make an original movie musical – that rarest of beasts – I was on board. All pretense of objectivity aside, I probably loved this film before the ink was dry on the first draft of the screenplay.

But it's one thing to have a dream and another thing to realize it, an obvious hangup for La La Land's pair of starry-eyed lovers: Mia (the luminous Emma Stone), an aspiring actress drowning in a mire of fruitless auditions, and Sebastian (the dapper and dashing Ryan Gosling), a crusading jazz pianist who wishes to save the art form by opening his own club.

Both are driven and yet cruelly tethered by their delusions of grandeur. It's only once their grand love affair begins, with all the inspiration and mutual moral support that comes with it, that their ambitions crystallize into action. Inevitably, that's also when the cracks begin to widen. So the story goes.
This plot is familiar, but a stylist of Chazelle's caliber knows how to deliver it in a new old fashioned way, elevating it well above mere pastiche. Not unlike the jazz music Sebastian so passionately describes in an attempt to convert Mia, “It's the same melody, but a whole new set of notes.”

True to that philosophy, though replete with homages extending far beyond the confines of classic film musicals, La La Land is entirely its own piece. Production designer David Wasco takes cues from An American in Paris and the like, but maintains a thoroughly modern look. Linus Sandgren's sweeping Cinemascope lensing would make Busby Berkeley drool, emboldened with Technicolor hues to rival Hitchcock's Vertigo. Oscar-winning editor Tom Cross pieces it all together with the precision of a David Fincher thriller, while respecting the magic spell that an uninterrupted dance sequence can cast.

The music (courtesy Chazelle's Whiplash collaborator Justin Hurwitz, with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) is intoxicating, even when separated from the visuals, but it doesn't take much to see why this was built from the ground up as a musical specifically for the screen. In many ways, the movie musical is the ultimate form of artistic expressionism: Song as conversation, dance as flirtation, heightened emotion on a canvas that would dwarf any Broadway theatre.
This is apparent throughout: The audacious opening number “Another Day of Sun”, seamlessly stitched as a single take on the grid-locked L.A. freeway;
Stone's heart-crumbling soliloquy “Audition”, shot in simple, fluent closeup;
The introspective whirlwind “Epilogue”, which recalls the glorious cinematic ballets of Gene Kelly and Vincent Minnelli...

None of this could be done on the stage.

Alas, optimists dreaming of a return of the movie musical will eventually have to come back down to earth from this ravishing high. For a genre on life support since the 70s there appears to be no true comeback in sight, but to wallow in reality's bittersweet truths is to miss the point. We may not get another gem as affectionate and unapologetic as La La Land for a long time, but we should cherish it all the more for that. Until then, here's to those fools who dream... foolish as they may seem.

**** out of ****


  1. His first name is spelled Vincente Minnelli

  2. What did you think of the design elements; particularly the costume designs?