In an era where sequels, remakes and reboots seem to dominate the Hollywood landscape, it’s nice (not to mention rare) to find a film of refreshing originality, joyful energy and a style that is both infectious and hard to describe.
“La La Land” tells the story of Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a dedicated jazz musician, both struggling to achieve their goals in a city known for heartbreak. On the surface, the story is a simple one – a tale of love vs. ambition. Age-old and often familiar questions and scenarios are the basis of the conflict, such as the question of one spouse giving up their dreams to support the success of another. In the hands of another writer and filmmaker, this might seem to be a very basic and perhaps even boring narrative. But this film, and subsequently this story, are neither.
Even with Stone and Gosling (not to mention the entire cast) delivering winning performances, the true star of “La La Land” is the movie itself. With shades of live theatre and nods to the great musicals of yesteryear, this film often surprises with its cinematic choices, including Broadway-style spotlight lighting (used in several scenes to great effect), a fantasy sequence that is part “Swan Lake” from “Billy Elliot the Musical” and part “Elephant Love Medley” from “Moulin Rouge” and musical numbers that seem to be shot in one continuous take. I found myself wanting to immediately re-watch the opening song, filmed in dense Los Angeles traffic, as I don’t recall a single edit in that entire epic sequence.
Stone’s rousing “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” was the standout in a score of lovely songs, with both lead actors featuring surprisingly good singing voices. John Legend is used nicely as the leader of a jazz band that Gosling’s character may join and the “modern jazz” song featuring Legend is excellent as well. One of the most remarkable things about the music is Gosling’s piano playing, which uses no doubles or CGI and for which he reportedly spent hours a day practicing until he knew the music by heart. His dedication pays off in the film by making his musical scenes seem incredibly real.
“La La Land” was written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who was the writer-director of 2014’s “Whiplash,” which earned him Oscar nominations for his script and the film. I would expect that he will again hear his name called when this year’s nominees are announced. He’s already been nominated for the Golden Globes, as have both of the lead actors and the film itself. It would not surprise me to see this movie do very well during awards season. It is a wonderful, heartfelt love letter to Hollywood, movie musicals, love, heartbreak and jazz.
It will certainly be a fine addition to my Blu Ray library and a second viewing cannot come soon enough. I cannot recommend this film enough.
***** out of *****
“La La Land”
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Music by Justin Hurwitz
Lyrics by Pasek & Paul
Now playing in cinemas nationwide
Photo: Emma Stone as Mia and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian in “La La Land”