La La Land (2016) / Musical-Romance

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some language
Running Time: 128 min.

Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, J.K. Simmons, Rosemarie DeWitt
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle

Review published December 20, 2016

Emma Stone (Aloha, Irrational Man) stars as a struggling actress named Mia, who works as a barista in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, in between auditions that only serve to make her feel frazzled by the experience.  Ryan Gosling (The Nice Guys, The Big Short) is an ambitious jazz pianist, Sebastian, whose love of more traditional jazz sounds puts him at odds with those who wish to hire him, either for playing Holiday ditties as background music, or in modern jazz fusion bands who seem to cater to new crowds who don't particularly care about serious jazz as he sees it.  The pair soon meet and begin a romance, all the while trying to make it in Tinseltown.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who made one heck of a splash with his prior feature in the Best Picture-nominated Whiplash, La La Land represents one of the few rare non-animated musicals put out by Hollywood in recent years that features an original story along with all original songs.  It's a love letter of a film, not only to the city that inspires its title in Los Angeles, but also to the many dreamers that have come there to make those dreams come true with success as a performing artist. 

Certainly, such a project would normally have met with a lot of "Harumphs" from studio executives, as well as, "What else have you got?" from producers listening to the initial pitch, so it's to Chazelle's eternal credit that he continued to make whatever calls he could and knock on as many doors in order to see this amazing dream of a movie come to life on the big screen. And this is especially true, not only given to tough road of a musical that has no pre-established fan base, as well as one that incorporates so many jazz pieces that can't be made into pop tunes, along with a romance that doesn't actually give those who just want a sweeping love story something to fawn over as they leave the theater.

To get funding, many an artist would have made vast changes to the story and music in order to placate those who want to invest in the money but would rather see a more commercial product, which, of course, would be completely against the message of the movie that suggests staying true to one's dreams, regardless of all of those things that may try to crush them. Beautifully shot on 35mm film, featuring, for a relatively low budget, an impressive amount of location shoots and multitudinous extras, this is an undertaking every bit as ambitious as the characters the film is about.  It's a decidedly old-fashioned film in its approach, drawing upon the vibe of MGM musicals of yesteryear, as well as the well-rgarded classics from the likes of Jacques Demy, especially his The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

The film opens with a continuous-take magical number, featuring many Los Angelinos performing an impromptu song-and-dance number on a major freeway overpass entitled, "Another Day in the Sun," a joyous celebration of the beautiful weather afforded Southern California residents just about every day of existence there. It's also an apt metaphor for the optimism among a host of dreamers who seem to be perpetually caught in life's traffic jam, hoping things will clear up so that they can finally get to their intended destinstion. It's just one of several beautifully arranged and composed pieces, which immediately sets the tone of the film as one that exists somewhere between reality and fantasy.

Another a showstopper set at the Griffith observatory, brought to life from composer (and best friend to Chazelle since their time as band-mates at Harvard) Justin Hurwitz, with whom he worked on the film for over a half-decade (even before the breakthrough of Whiplash in the theaters), fleshing out a few concepts from an experimental musical film they had made together in 2009 called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.  The songs were mostly composed after the basic story had been conceived, but prior to Chazelle's finished script, allowing the writer-director to build up the scenes in plotting and emotional relevancy, while Hurwitz would add additional scoring, with later lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, as the scenes were being put together during the production.

Although Chazelle should get the lion's share of the credit as to why the film works, that shouldn't take away from the phenomenal performances, not only in acting, but also in singing, dancing, and playing instruments, to Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad cast-mates Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, who took over the roles from the originally pitched Emma Watson (who was iffy on the project before ultimately being unavailable) and Whiplash star Miles Teller (who, reportedly, lost the gig trying to stall for a bigger paycheck).  Stone and Gosling offers a handsome and winsome pairing to sell to box office (Lionsgate upped the production budget upon their agreeing to come aboard), and some great acting chops besides, but neither artist had been known before for their singing, dancing or musical prowess in films (Stone did some theater work before hitting it big and Gosling sings, plays guitar and (most importantly) piano for a rock duo called 'Dead Man's Bones').  It makes sense within the context of the film that they be good, but not too good, as they have to be just good enough to get looks, but not quite talented enough yet to secure top-flight gigs, at least not until their hunger drives them further into their craft.

While the storyline is relatively simple, and one that has been a staple of Hollywood classics since the beginning of commercial films (this is a movie about movies, after all), the complexity of the characterizations, coupled with the technically proficient presentation despite the multitudinous moving pieces involved, makes it all feel fresh and new in the modern era.  Obviously, any musical needs rehearsal and a heavy emphasis on planned songs and movements over them, but the non-musical scenes of dialogue are imbued with moments of spontaneity and improvisation, allowing for straight-forward dramatic scenes that aren't contrived for injection of the songs.

La La Land is a passion project about those who, appropriately, persevere in their passions despite a lack of success, or those who have chosen to continue to try to make their dream come true without settling for the alluring comfort of 'selling out' that puts money in the pockets, enough to earn a living, but not quite enough to satisfy the soul.  It's a film about taking a risk in Hollywood, and itself represents a risk, but one that ultimately has paid off, not only for Chazelle and Hurwitz, as well as those who backed their dreams, but also for us in the audience who've gotten to become absorbed in this enchanting musical masterpiece come to life.

 Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo