La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)
“La La Land” is one of those rare films that succeeds in almost everything that it sets out to do. Damien Chazelle has thrown himself into contention for one of the best young filmmakers today between 2014’s critical darling “Whiplash” and this year’s “La La Land”. While “Whiplash” was merely a very good directed film elevated by a career performance by J.K. Simmons, “La La Land” is a directorial masterpiece. Chazelle’s every decision enhances the world he has created while still managing to perfectly walk the nostalgia tightrope never once falling into tripeness.
The majority of the film is set over the course of one year in modern day, yet somehow timeless, Los Angeles. Emma Stone plays Mia an aspiring actress/ current barista at a coffee shop on a film lot. Her first, meaningful, meeting with Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian is at a restaurant immediately after Sebastian is fired, by a fun J.K. Simmons cameo, for performing the Jazz that he is passionate for instead of the prescribed Christmas tunes. The year progresses as Mia and Sebastian interact, fall in love, pursue their dreams, and inevitably compromise on them.
Opening on a sweep through a traffic jam giving the viewer a glimpse into the musical worlds of others before focusing in on a woman singing to herself and then breaking into an opening number song sequence shot in a single take with seemingly hundreds of extras, “La La Land” asserts itself as a throwback to the musical heyday from minute one. While it includes many direct homages to “Singin’ in the Rain”, “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” or other Demy 1960s musicals are the closest tonal and style match. Not content to merely pay respects to the greatest cinematic musicals, “La La Land” is filled to the brim with references and homages to much of the golden age of Hollywood. Most notably are multiple allusions towards “Casablanca” some obvious, the stage balcony form Boggart and Bergman’s infamous scene is across the street from Mia’s work, some slightly subtler, Mia and Sebastian have a love song that is played prominently in Paris. The entire love letter to great cinema is punctuated by an epilogue that will leave even the most stone-faced grinning.
The nostalgia and homage are balanced with just the perfect amount of meta humor to prevent the experience from feeling saccharine. The boldest moment, pushing the envelope of being a little too on the nose, involves Mia worrying that the one women show she’s working on is too nostalgic. Other subtler hints include Sebastian’s laughable obsession with all things from a classic jazz era, including fedoras and an obnoxious classic car, and the subtle jab at how artistically devoid cover bands are.
While the presence of cell phones, expensive coffee drinks, and Priuses may ground the era squarely in the present day, “La La Land” exists outside of time. The costuming skews older in keeping with the homage to previous big Hollywood musicals, yet they wouldn’t especially stand out of place in today’s world. Unless fashion takes some drastic turns in the next few decades, they won’t feel date for any re-watch, no matter how many years down the road. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling both embody this timelessness. They bring the audience in with their passion and prowess and spin the world around them.
If anything is keeping “La La Land” from complete greatness, it would have to be music. The music was stellar though lacked the memorability. Very few of the numbers possessed the earworm quality that many possess. That issue is only compounded by Stone and Gosling’s status as actors, not singers. While neither are in any way bad, Gosling’s voice especially lacks the power that one would expect from a musical lead. There is little doubt that the soundtrack will sell and be a car staple for years to come, full disclosure I plan on running out to buy the soundtrack on vinyl the moment it is for sale, but without the show stopping sing along number, it may struggle to permeate the public psyche to the extent that it deserves.
The greater your love for cinema, and especially classic Hollywood, the greater your appreciation for “La La Land” will be. It succeeds at both aiming high and executing on those lofty goals. I found it to be the most enjoyable time I’ve had in the theater in recent memory, and look forward to repeat viewings and annoying my roommates with the umpteenth consecutive play through of the soundtrack.