With credentials such as Grand Piano and Whiplash, writer and dierctor Damien Chazelle is rapidly proving himself to be one of the most prolific filmmakers of the past few years, with music being a common theme running through his films. His newest entry, La La Land, is no exception.
Set in sunny Los Angeles, the story essentially spans a romance between two aspiring artists: an actress named Mia (Birdman’s Emma Stone), who has attempted and lost so many auditions that she’s considering throwing it in for good; and jazz pianist Sebastian (Drive star Ryan Gosling), who’s trying to scrape together the resources to start his own jazz club.
After a couple of chance encounters, a spark ingites between the two of them, and their romantic adventures begin to take flight. But as both of their dreams begin to take form, they realize that their pursuits may lead them on separate paths in life.
This is Stone and Gosling’s third time sharing the screen together, and it really shows from how well they play off of each other. Whether they’re exchanging snarky quips of dialogue or singing their hearts out, the passion is high in every scene they share. In this film in particular more than any of her others, Stone is able to give a nuanced performance that relies mostly on her facial expressions, despite having a fluid singing voice. Even when she’s not singing, her eyes are able to say a lot about what she’s feeling, and that subtlety is a rare quality that I really enjoy. Powerhouse actor JK Simmons also gives an entertaining turn in a supporting role, but as with Chazelle’s other two films, the focus is firmly on the central characters, as it should be.
Speaking of Chazelle’s other films, La La Land is starkly different, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While I really enjoy Grand Piano and Whiplash, it’s undeniable that their defining trait is slowly building up tremendous suspense, which isn’t for everyone. Because it’s the most light-hearted of the three, La La Land is the most accessible to a wider audience, and it’s impressive that Chazelle is able to make this change so seamlessly. Every directing choice made for the film is ultimately driven towards the goal of embracing the style of mid-20th century musicals, such as Singin’ in the Rain or West Side Story. The visual aesthetic is soft and inviting, using lighting and choice of color as a clever visual method to illustrate the characters’ emotions, and often invoking a dreamlike atmosphere that reflects the music.
And what is a good musical without good music? Fortunately, you don’t have to ponder that question in the case of this film. The songs, all originally composed by Justin Hurwitz and written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, each have their own tempo and rhythm, and each mark a particular point in the plot progression. This is the rare musical that only uses songs when it’s absolutely necessary to do so, as opposed to grasping every opportunity for one. As such, each tune has a purpose: to reflect on a moment, to open the door to a new story direction, or to simply take us away to somewhere mesmerizing. Somewhere foreign, yet friendly, which is a feeling that can only be found in the best of dreams. Best of all: they’re all original. I can’t wait until the soundtrack’s release.
Yet, among all this talk of dreams and mysticism, the film still finds time to ground its conflict in the realm of realism, without ever feeling conflicted in its tone. The high moments feel free and victorious, and contrast beautifully with the lower points that pull back the curtain to reveal real world consequences. It’s as though the film is making a statement that while aspirations are being met at one point, a more tragic story that we’re often unaware of is unfolding simultaneously, as is often the case in life. To me, this speaks a message that we all have dreams, and while it’s a wonderful thing to pursue them, it’s equally critical to consider the bigger picture.
At its core, La La Land is ultimately a love letter to classic musicals from the days of yore, and at the same time, a gesture inviting that classic era to recieve a real-world treatment. The result is unique, embracing the film’s charmingly vintage roots while taking them to new ground. And while all of the technical aspects – the music, lighting, and visuals – are excellent, it’s important to remember the two stars at the heart of the film. All of these factors are beautifully executed, and I think it’s safe to say that Chazelle is on his way to his second Best Picture nomination. The film is scheduled for a limited release December 9, and will screen everywhere the following weekend. I may even see it again, and for me, La La Land recieves four out of four shining stars.