A few months ago, a friend who was a relatively new transplant to Los Angeles went on a diatribe against the city. Too many cars, too many fake people (too many people, period), too much traffic, too expensive, too much monotonous sun, too much everything. I found myself giving an impassioned defense of the city that I've come to think of as my home in the last five years: There's a reason why people still come to this town to chase their dreams; there's an energy and a hustle and a creativity here that you simply won't find anywhere else in the world.
None of what I said was insincere. I love this town; I truly do. It's just a shame that Hollywood has seemingly always used its greatest export to portray the worst parts of itself: either the seedy noir underbelly or the shallow reality show culture of the rich.
"Here's to the ones who dream..."
Damien Chazelle's ambitious La La Land is the cheerfully defiant counterpoint to that. The opening scene, a show-stopping musical number involving a backed-up freeway, dozens of singers and dancers, and a few hundred cars, channels an infectious, joyful energy that is the undercurrent of the film. From there, the energy slows down a bit as we meet Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who are both about as damn charming as we've ever seen them.
Their chemistry together is evident, just as it was in their previous co-lead films (Gangster Squad and Crazy, Stupid, Love). You believe it when they fall in love. Both Stone and Gosling have a certain timeless, throwback quality; together, Mia and Sebastian would not be out of place dropped right into the middle of a mid-century Arthur Freed movie musical. Stone just may be our modern-day Lucille Ball — with better acting chops — and Gosling channels his inner Gene Kelly.
"Foolish as they may seem..."
It somewhat boggles the mind to think of what Chazelle has accomplished here, not just in the fact that they let him make a huge, old Hollywood musical film but that he pulled it off. The cinematography and set design alone are worth the price of admission. Linus Sandgren deserves full marks here as the director of cinematography. The swirling, swooping takes and long one-shots lend themselves to the bright, technicolor world that production designer David Wasco and costume designer Mary Zophres have built.
Yet Sandgren overlays everything, even the more intimate scenes, with a soft, diffuse lighting that both grounds the film in our modern era and transports it to an earlier decade at the same time. It's another aspect to the artistry of La La Land that gives it a classic feel of timelessness; it wouldn't be jarring to see it paired with Singin' in the Rain for a double feature at the Egyptian Theatre.
"Here's to the hearts that ache..."
The musical genre isn't for everyone; some find the random fantasy segments or spontaneous breaking out into song to be cheesy, but when they happen in La La Land, you're too swept up in the whimsy to notice. In Mia and Sebastian's creative, whirlwind romance, spontaneous whimsy works.
It could be because Chazelle grounds the whimsy in (modern) age old dilemmas: When does chasing the dream cross the line into becoming a fool? Does giving your all to your passion mean you can't give your all to love, or is there room for both? It's a decision that most people have had to make, whether their dreams were less realistic — becoming a world-famous actress — or more modest, like giving up a year to study abroad in favor of caring for ailing parents.
"Here's to the mess we make..."
La La Land is not by any means a perfect movie. The entire penultimate sequence feels a bit out of place and jarring. It's not quite clear at first if it's a dream sequence or a flashback or an entire retelling and it lasts too long for a section that never truly needed to be in the film in the first place. It smacks of Chazelle being unable to kill his darlings, a segment that feels far too self-indulgent and unnecessary for a movie that, to that point, had scenes that only felt necessary and impactful.
It also leaves you wanting to know more about Mia and less about Sebastian whose passion for jazz has hardened into an uncompromising nature. That sort of nature is great for inner drive and a clear vision, but not so great for interpersonal relationships. In just a few scenes, you know what he's about — everyone has known a guy like Sebastian. Mia, on the other hand, is different, and I found myself wanting to spend more time with her than we got.
Still, it's impossible to walk out of La La Land and not feel good. To use a cliche, it just makes you happy to be alive, reminds us of why we live in the first place. I'm not exaggerating to say that it just may be exactly the movie we need right at the time we need it. It will be at the top of every award season bracket and with good reason. It deserves to be.
La La Land expands nationwide this week.