'La La Land' Review

'La La Land' Review

By Robert Dougherty December 14, 2016 09:06AM EST
90% Review Score: 9 / 10
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Summit Entertainment
La La Land (2016)

Both La La Land the movie and La La Land the budding success story have already gone down as improbable, romantic, dream come true musical tales. Just as Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are framed as Hollywood dreamers fighting the longest odds, writer/director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz got that same label for daring to create a completely original, non Broadway based musical inspired by the American and foreign musicals of several decades past.

Chazelle and Hurwitz may ride that straight out of Hollywood set up all the way to the Oscars, along with Stone and La La Land itself. However, while La La Land sells itself and starts out as a candy coated, technicolor drenched musical comedy romp of true love and pure dreams, it is only one part of Chazelle's ultimate bait and switch.

While audiences may come to hum and sing along to Hurwitz's music, and are given every reason to do just that, Chazelle's long game makes it much harder to dismiss La La Land as a light as a feather trifle. In a time where so much material is either way too bleak or obliviously chipper, Chazelle's ultimate balance of both is just as magical and important as the music, Stone and Gosling, although it is a close call.

The love story balancing it all is straight out of one of the Hollywood movies that Stone's Mia keeps auditioning for without any success. In the meantime, idealistic and artsy jazz musician Sebastian is going through his own series of rejections for refusing to compromise. Along the way, the two somehow keep bumping into each other, only gradually start to tolerate each other more and more, and eventually get swept away into something more. But as Mia pivots from acting to writing and Sebastian pivots from jazz to a keyboard spot on a rock band, their love goes through rockier pivots along the way.

Chazelle doesn't waste a single second laying down the gauntlet, immediately giving the audience a litmus test with an opening number set on a jam packed LA freeway. Those who are willing to give into Chazelle's flights of fancy, ultra romantic tone and fantastical touches, and those who just can't suspend enough disbelief to get swept away, will know where they stand the minute "Another Day Of Sun" is over.

In truth, "Another Day Of Sun" is the weakest major La La Land song in terms of lyrics, at least the ones that can be understood. The real wonder comes from Chazelle, who stages it all in one take with the show stopping visual sights of colorfully dressed dancers, increasingly complicated choreography, and the catchy musical theme itself that helps balance out the less memorable lyrics after a rough start. Yet this is more of a flashy visual success than anything else, which proves Chazelle's power at filming stunningly staged sequences, but is still missing something more to make it really click.

However, that something more immediately falls into place once Stone is off the freeway.

As Chazelle struggles at first to make La La Land go deeper than its music and visuals, Stone is the anchor that is already way ahead of him. For all of the striking sights around LA, the longing, drive, rejection, humiliation and fragile hope on Stone's face right from the get go is the film's greatest visual advantage.

By the time that helps La La Land settle down early, Chazelle and Hurwitz strike with a second number in "Someone In The Crowd" that is a more complete musical success. It hits on all cylinders in composing, lyrics and in sweeping the audience along, and even fits in a more comedic and deflating punch line afterwards.

Once that helps bring an end to Stone's opening segment, it is time for Gosling to enter the picture. For his part, he breaks the ice with comedy, proving that La La Land is also funnier than perhaps first advertised. His exchanges with Rosemarie DeWitt as his sister, and Chazelle's Oscar winning Whiplash star J.K. Simmons as his ironically jazz hating boss, set the stage for Gosling's biggest musical contribution on the piano.

The biggest and perhaps only nitpick to make in casting Stone and Gosling is their lack of soaring Broadway style voices, even though Stone was just on Broadway in Cabaret. But while Stone's soft singing tones do work for her and prove to be a rather deliberate choice, Gosling as a singer is a far more dicey suspension of disbelief. Yet fortunately, he is more convincing playing the piano, in a tune that captivates Mia and works recurring magic throughout the rest of the film.

Nonetheless, Mia and Sebastian still haven't really interacted by then, save for two rather brief and curt collisions. This brings the "Winter" section of La La Land to an end, leaving us still waiting to see Stone and Gosling get back to work together like in Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad. However, the "Spring" section quickly takes care of that.

While La La Land is built on fully original music, a few cheesy 80s classics do get covered in Mia and Sebastian's first extended meeting. There, great comedic exchanges are made without either saying a word, with Stone even getting to use her considerable lip syncing skills too. But eventually they do have to talk, banter and get on each other's nerves, mainly in the tap filled song "A Lovely Night" which Chazelle has to elevate with another one-take long strategy.

As things obviously thaw from there, Chazelle starts to slow things down, letting the back-and-forth banter of Stone and Gosling carry things for a while. It is a pretty good plan, although it also illuminates that La La Land is better off when it doesn’t bother to slow down.

As long as Hurwitz’s score and songs, Chazelle’s visual flourishes and Stone and Gosling’s exchanges are powering the way, it leaves viewers less time to stop and actually nitpick everything. Therefore, it is for its own good that it rarely goes without at least one of those elements, as the haze that they create over the audience and its more critical functions threatens to dissipate whenever it takes a breath.

There are times when Chazelle’s more over the top ideas for romance and music are a bit much, such as when Mia and Sebastian literally go dancing into the stars at a planetarium. But Hurwitz’s reworking of Sebastian’s piano theme in the background helps make it a bit less silly, if only a bit. Nonetheless, it further proves that even when La La Land’s flights of fancy and swings for the fences don’t always work, there is still usually something contained within the weaker moments that manages to shine anyway.

By this point, Chazelle is halfway through the Winter/Spring/Summer/Fall structure of the movie, which is hardly a new one but proves to be quite on the nose here as things go on. During the summer blossoming of love, Sebastian’s “City of Stars” theme song is reprised with a helpful assist from Mia, although the duet is pointedly performed over shots of their first gathering storm clouds.

For Sebastian, his fall from grace supposedly comes from joining a pop rock band, led by a frienemy played by John Legend. Yet there is something ironic in how joining the only cast member with a professional singing voice represents a deal with the music devil. What’s more, he does poke a convincing hole in saying that worshiping the past makes it harder to come up with anything that's actually new, which can be read as a jazz commentary or perhaps a meta one about the movie itself, if only to get ahead of critics who might say the same thing.

The question of whether Chazelle and Hurwitz really just pay homage to old and outdated forms of musicals, or manage to say anything new with them, may be a fair one. As stated above, this is why La La Land is better off when it doesn’t let up long enough to let us think these things over.

In that regard, Chazelle does take his biggest risk by switching up the tone of the second half. After seducing us with big colorful numbers, romance in all its forms and odes to dreamers, it may either seem hypocritical or a rip off to try and be more grounded the rest of the way. Without as much of those flashy elements, he runs the risk of making the movie seem like a cheat as reality sets in.

However, when it turns out to be the other way around, it actually makes for Chazelle and La La Land’s crowning achievement.

The floodgates open when a surprise romantic dinner turns harsh, as Stone and Gosling are just as adept at bouncing off each other in hurtful ways as in funny and romantic ways. In fact, it demonstrates that for all their singing, dancing and wooing, Mia and Sebastian are far less adept at actually talking to each other, interpreting what they really want from each other and communicating it all.

With the die cast, Gosling gets to use a fair share of puppy dog faces as the turmoil and oncoming disaster unfolds. Yet the pain is even more palpable from Stone as Mia takes one too many professional and personal blows. As Chazelle starts making the transition from romantic musical comedy to tearjerker, of all genres, a lot of those budding tears can be credited to Stone.

But different kinds of tears are more likely to break out when Mia unleashes her climactic “Audition.”

Movie musicals nowadays tend to clinch an Oscar nomination or victory for performers with just one song, as with Chicago’s Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly, Dreamgirls’ Jennifer Hudson and Les Miserables’ Anne Hathaway. Whether “Audition” is the final ace in the hole that puts Stone in with this crowd, and over Natalie Portman, Isabelle Huppert and others in the Best Actress race will be settled soon enough. Either way, the only other thing to say is that while one of the trailers already showed Stone singing “Audition", it is hardly the half of it by a longshot.

And that isn’t all the trailers kept under wraps for the third act, for that matter.

Chazelle clearly isn’t afraid or ashamed to have La La Land look like an overly romantic, outdated and unabashedly hopeful film with its head in the clouds, like the musicals of the 40s and 50s that inspired him. But as it turns out, he isn’t afraid or ashamed to acknowledge the sadness and inevitable pain of such tales either. Still, too much or too little of either element would throw the film completely off track, and make it look indecisive or hypocritical for trying to have it both ways.

Yet in the end, it pretty much winds up having it both ways better than any film in recent memory.

This represents the ultimate triumph of both Chazelle and La La Land, as it delivers what it advertises, dares to go in a different direction anyway and actually pulls it off to devastating effect. These days, that may well be an even more improbable achievement than making a fully original musical based on decades-old musical tactics play like gangbusters to modern audiences.

Technically, this really doesn’t resemble old movie musicals as much as Chazelle’s own Whiplash, in a way. Of course, the Chazelle who made such a deeply bleak and cynical film about the creative musical process would probably be the last kind of target audience member for La La Land, let alone seem like the guy who could actually make it.

Whiplash was a movie really sold on music, on several show stopping sequences directed by Chazelle, on a brilliant star duo, and on a thrilling ending that somehow comes across as both triumphant and utterly depressing. For La La Land, the show stopping sequences are much more musical, the brilliant star duo is a romantic Stone and Gosling instead of a clashing Simmons and Miles Teller, and the ending goes beyond Whiplash’s mix of victory and defeat.

Nevertheless, the same principles manage to apply for the dark and brutal Chazelle of Whiplash, and the romantic and musically bittersweet Chazelle of La La Land. The fact that the same director could have switched tones quite like this in consecutive films, gone from one extreme to another without losing a beat, and pulled off high wire acts that would sink many other directors is show stopping in of itself. Only a director like that could have made La La Land work the same way in the kind of fashion that it does.

Whiplash and La La Land are both movies uplifted by several incredible sequences, great music, and a duo that couldn’t be more ideal although only one of them may be honored by the Oscars. Perhaps all of this may help disguise that the cast, director, music and bigger set pieces might be better than the overall whole of these movies, and help cover up other drawbacks that might become clearer when the initial sugar rush dies down.

Yet this is why Chazelle is fortunate to come up with such a rush.

The rush of La La Land comes from Chazelle directing some of the set pieces of the year, Hurwitz composing the score of the year and a couple of the songs of the year, Stone giving what may be the performance of the year or at least one of them, and Stone and Gosling once again being the on-screen couple of the year.

With all those advantages, there are more than enough crescendos to go around, along with the proof that sometimes a film can really have its cake, eat it too and even sing, dance and cry with it. The oncoming Oscar race and multiple viewings may take their shot at dimming La La Land’s star, but it will more than likely prove as stubborn and insistent on burning bright anyway as the would-be stars it is about.

For that and more, although La La Land really earns a score of 8.5, it can be rounded off to a 9 on the official TMN.com scale. While select audiences in New York and the real La La Land have already flocked to give their own scores, those in other cities can start doing the same on Dec. 16 or on Christmas Day.

Tags: La La Land (2016), Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Damien Chazelle, Justin Hurwitz
About the Author
Robert Dougherty is a longtime online freelance writer, who wrote reviews, articles & editorials on movies/TV for several years on the now defunct Yahoo Voices.
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