|Posted by Nick Spake on December 14, 2016 at 8:00 PM|
The movie musical has made a major comeback over the past decade and a half. On the whole, though, every film has either been a Broadway adaptation like “Chicago” or a jukebox musical like “Moulin Rogue.” The only original movie musicals have been animated features, such as “Frozen” and “Moana.” Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” is a true treasure: a modern movie musical with unique songs, distinctive characters, and an inspired love story. Although the film is set in contemporary Los Angeles, it has the look and feel of a musical from cinema’s Golden Age. What we’re left with is a miraculous film that has one foot in the past and one foot in the present, finding a pitch perfect balance.
From the opening number, “La La Land” is an enchanting experience that never lets up. As the music builds, a seemingly mundane California freeway is suddenly transformed into a blissful celebration with over 100 dancers. Chazelle’s film is full of scenes like this, draping everyday settings with eye-popping colors and kinetic energy. He gives LA an otherworldly presence, turning the City of Flowers and Sunshine into the City of Dreams. At the heart of this spectacular backdrop are two fools with the audacity to dream big.
Emma Stone deserves to take home this year’s Best Actress Oscar for her stunning performance as Mia. Reminiscent of Stone’s own life story, Mia is an enormously gifted actress who rolled the dice and moved to LA. In a city full of aspiring artists, however, it’s almost impossible to get noticed. She pours her heart and soul into every audition, but the casting directors never give their undivided attention. In addition to being an exquisite singer and dancer, Stone captures all the heartache and struggle of being a performer while also maintaining the passion that drives people to keep going. She most notably nails it in a captivating musical number entitled “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” which is sure to be a frontrunner for Best Original Song.
Starring opposite Stone is Ryan Gosling as Sebastian. He’s a serious musician who wants nothing more to open his own jazz club. Alas, he finds himself playing Christmas carols for a demanding restaurant owner, played by J. K. Simmons. The jazz pianist eventually sets his pride aside and takes a steady gig with John Legend’s Keith. While the money is good, Seb fears that he’ll never get to play the kind of music he cherishes so much. This begs the age-old question, can an artist be happy with their work and be a success as well?
Stone and Gosling previously appeared side by side in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “Gangster Squad.” In “La La Land,” they solidify their place as one of cinema’s greatest onscreen pairings. Every time these two are together, they unleash a wave of chemistry that practically drowns the audience in the sentiment of romance. They share a particularly wonderful dance sequence against the LA night sky, calling Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to mind. Another number literally defies gravity, elevating our lovers above the stars so they can dance on air.
With flamboyant production design, lively lighting, and an infectious musical score from composer Justin Hurwitz, “La La Land” appropriately feels like a daydream. At the same time, though, it doesn’t shy away from harsh reality. The film acknowledges all the hardships and sacrifices that come with pursuing your dream. Even if your dream does come true, it might not play out exactly how you envisioned. No matter what road you take, however, you’re always going to look back and wonder what might have been.
This leads to the film’s superb finale, which I won’t dare spoil here. Let’s just say it encompasses everything that makes movies magical. Chazelle’s last picture, “Whiplash,” was a remarkable feat, especially for such a young filmmaker. His follow-up outing is somehow even better, standing out as the best film of his career, the best film of the year, and maybe even the best film of the decade.
Grade: 5 out of 5 Stars