La La Land Review
Hollywood filmmaking, like all things, has constantly adapted and changed with the times. With each new period of film, whether it’s The Silent Era, The Golden Age, or New Hollywood, there will always be those who fight against the change, with their passion for the past driving them to make great work. Directors like Tarantino, Scorsese, and Nolan all hold onto an aspect of film that inspired them, and this reverence is what has constantly pushed their work towards greatness. Damien Chazelle is the next name on this list, as his newest film, La La Land, conjures up some of the greatest admiration for Old Hollywood, through beautiful imagery and blissful song.
The film tells the story of Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist, both living in Los Angeles to follow their dreams. After many failed auditions, Mia begins to lose sight of her goals. Similarly, Sebastian works in lowly restaurants playing “Jingle Bells”, when he would rather be running his own club and performing classic jazz music. When the two meet, they begin on a path of self-discovery that is littered with hardship, sacrifice, and excitement, all broken up by the four seasons of a year. As both Mia and Sebastian stumble down their ambitious paths, they fall in love and change each other, for better and for worse.
The story of La La Land is one that any passionately driven person can relate to, as it is the typical tale of aspiration. The characters face never-ending embarrassment and obstacles in the hopes that one day they will “make it”. Perhaps the strongest quality of this story is just how personally resonant it is, not only to the audience, but to Chazelle himself. Where Chazelle’s film Whiplash is a tale of an artist driven by anger and negativity, La La Land takes the exact opposite approach. The film is fantastical and optimistic, pushing the idea that hope should drive an artist rather than resentment, a notion that can hopefully echo throughout a jaded Hollywood. Much like Sebastian says in the film, the story is about basic conflict and the necessary compromises that must be made to achieve a goal, but it is through such bold direction that this film becomes much more than that.
One such bold decision comes with the unspecified period of time in which La La Land takes place. Chazelle’s screenplay creates an amalgamation of 50s, 80s, and modern cultures, that all mix beautifully to produce a Los Angeles dreamscape divorced from time. This decision allows for truly incredible costumes and sets, which accent the film’s fantastically choreographed dance sequences. From the rich purple sunsets of L.A. to the outer-space backdrops inside Griffith Observatory, the scenes in La La Land feel staged in a dream, perfectly paralleling the mindsets that Mia and Sebastian have on their journey.
Chazelle’s passion for Old Hollywood filmmaking is obvious from the very beginning, with “La La Land in CinemaScope” bursting onto the screen in vibrant colors. His dedication to authenticity is apparent, but the nostalgia for classic cinema never becomes the focus of the film. While it is indisputably akin to Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, and The Young Girls of Rochefort, it never becomes an unoriginal rehash of old ideas. Stone and Gosling are incredible together, and feel much more grounded in reality than the classic Kelly-Reynolds couple of Singin’ in the Rain. The characters sing and dance, but they also fight, fail, and, at times, give up. The realistic sensibilities that Chazelle maintains in his characters is something that breaks the exasperatingly romanticized mold of classic musicals. Songs like “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” allow Stone to show off her musical talent in song, without ever seeming overly staged and dramatized. Stone’s voice feels authentic, with small whimpered lines making her character’s anxieties come through brilliantly.
While Chazelle, Stone, and Gosling all work in perfect unison, it is composer Justin Hurwitz, and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who truly push this film towards flawlessness. The music of La La Land can be grand and exciting, with songs “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd”. Equally, they can be forcefully passionate, with the duets of “A Lovely Night” and “City of Stars” being standouts. These songs fit perfectly into Chazelle’s Old Hollywood-inspired film, while also bringing something undeniably fresh to the downtrodden genre. Hurwitz is heavily influenced by jazz, which works to both embolden the characters and the Los Angeles setting. “Epilogue”, the grand culmination of this fantastic score, brings every piece of music back in perfect harmony, to ultimately conclude the film with a union of assurance and grief.
La La Land is truly the work of dreamers. From the incredible music to the beautiful cinematography of Linus Sandgren, everything oozes with a love for film. It is joyously inspiring, and through Chazelle’s flawless direction it becomes a personal window into aspiration. La La Land is quite possibly the best film of the year, and thanks to its memorably imaginative qualities, it may become a modern classic.