Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Movie Review: La La Land (2016)

La La Land (2016) - Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle; Starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, John Legend.

By Kenny Howell

Romanticism with a capital R.

That could be a bad thing, and to be honest, it usually is. But when Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and the great emerging director Damien Chazelle get together, it turns into maybe the best film of the year.

After exploding onto the scene a few years back with Whiplash (my best film of that year), Chazelle went ambitious with a throwback to classic Hollywood musicals with a touch of modern flair.

He recruited Stone and Gosling (which may be our best on screen pair) to steer the ship and tell the story of dreamers floundering in Los Angeles. Stone plays Mia, a wannabe actress who is repeatedly going to audition after audition, but has yet to have her big breakthrough. She keeps running into Sebastian, a fledgling jazz musician who has dreams of opening a club that stays true to the art form, but he can't stay out of his own way a lot of the time.

After two encounters that don't go so well, the third time is a charm when they meet at a party where Mia is networking and Sebastian is playing in the band entertaining the party. She requests an embarrassing song for him to play just to mess with him, and that kicks off the whirlwind romance that drives the story.

At its core, La La Land is about chasing your dreams, no matter how many times life punches you in the face, and no matter how many naysayers there are out there. Mia and Sebastian are definitely going through that. Mia is in a world that is extremely hard to achieve, there are a billion actresses out there it seems, and Sebastian is trying to succeed in a dying music genre. To keep fighting that fight, they need each other. And while the love is about just love itself, companionship, it is needing that person there to push you forward, constantly believing in you. But then that becomes even more complicated because that person will sacrifice for you to help you achieve.

Also, this is a musical in a classic sense of the word. But unlike some musicals who use the set pieces to drive the story, Chazelle uses the story to drive the pieces. He also mixes classic Hollywood performances with modern ones as well. The first scene of the film is a dance number set in the middle of Los Angeles traffic as people jump out of their cars and start singing and perform a routine on the tops of the cars while everything is at a stand still. That sets our world, but once there, the ballad of Mia and Sebastian get us to the next numbers, some of which are very good. When their love is soaring, the performances get more romantic.

Even though this is a musical and those numbers are important to it, the real reason it succeeds is because of Chazelle's clever script and the work of Stone and Gosling. They have had that spark since they first appeared together in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Something special happens between them when that camera comes on, one which we haven't seen in a long time. It's just pure joy. But Chazelle gets them there by staying away from conformity, and creating his own form of joy. This could have just been a simple love story, but he turns into so much more. It's about dreams, and what we do, what we sacrifice to achieve them. Sometimes that might be the most important thing in our lives. But that drive is what you need to succeed. And you need those people to help you get there. Luckily for moviegoers, Mia and Sebastian have each other.

Rating: ****

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