Review: Chazelle's 'La La Land' is a Joyous Return to Old School Cinema
by Jeremy Kirk
December 12, 2016
"It's conflict and it's compromise, and it's very, very exciting." That's how Sebastian, the character played by Ryan Gosling in La La Land, describes jazz, his obvious infatuation with the genre of music seeping into the actor's delivery. It's a description that could just as easily be used for the concepts of life and love and the way writer/director Damien Chazelle handles them in his film. La La Land is never as aggressive as Chazelle's first film, Whiplash, nor does it reach the sincere depths of that film. The intensity works its way into the film in different ways, though, the musical structure leading the viewer through Chazelle's story of failure and success in Los Angeles with joyous results. For so many different reasons La La Land is every bit the success that Whiplash was, chief among these the undeniable impact the film, and music, has on you.
Gosling's Sebastian is a musical genius, for lack of a better word, his abilities on the piano as palpable as his admiration for the music he plays. He's a romantic at heart, and the passion he holds for the music – and its purity – makes it all the more difficult to thrive in the concrete jungle of practicality found in the modern city. On the other side of the coin is Mia (played by Emma Stone), a struggling actress who grows more and more aware of her own failures with each, passing audition that comes and goes without success. Their views of the world differ, but, once these two finally bump into each other, the connection between them becomes clear. Although messy at first – such is life – the relationship that builds runs through its own set of conflicts and compromises, the excitement of it all charging through every song they and their supporting characters sing.
Chazelle's latest film is filled with songs and moments of excitement, but the realities of this modern world are what make the story being told all the more reverberate all the more. Sebastian loses his job early in the film because of his refusal to play the clichéd, Christmas songs the management of the restaurant where he performs demands. Mia's frustration stems from the studio execs who seem more interested in their phones than her audition. It's the reality of a city built on dreams, the personification of success always staring our lovers in their respective face from the gigantic billboards and wall paintings that litter their environment.
Chazelle's opening musical number, "Another Day in the Sun," establishes setting and tone wonderfully, the song performed by a colorful cast of characters along a gridlocked freeway, the antithesis to the coldness and melancholy of something like REM's "Everybody Hurts". La La Land, while never ignoring the harsh truths that put our dreams on hold, is, nonetheless, a film about celebrating the brightness of life and the joyous emotions that lead the heart. It's never hokey nor forced, and Chazelle meticulously tells his story without forgetting the uplifting magic that's almost a prerequisite for the musicals of classic Hollywood. La La Land, to its credit, embraces the magic of that era, combining old-school mentality with modern conflicts and realistic resolutions.
Keeping those outcomes on the ground are both Gosling and Stone, who are quickly becoming America's sweethearts when it comes to this type of joyful, love story. The comfort level working between them is undeniable, and it's brought about by the duo's talent more so than the fact that La La Land sees them playing against one another for the third time after Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) and Gangster Squad (2013). Gosling is as old-school Hollywood as the film's atmosphere, and Stone plays adorable and quirky with the absolute best of them. Apart, the actors deliver a grounded yet lovable sensibility rarely seen in today's A-listers, but together, the pair are as dynamic as any Hollywood screen couple seen in years. Their connection solidifies Chazelle's characters on a contextual level with everything that goes unsaid allowing the pair and their relationship to simmer in the subtext the filmmaker leaves in the story's wake.
It certainly helps that the musical numbers Chazelle has crafted are endlessly catchy, the dance sequences that often accompany them equally memorable. La La Land is a return to the joyous musicals of old, a concept rarely seen in today's world of high-octane suspense and endless violence. It's a film that stays resonating in your head with music that continues to fill your ears long after your viewing is over. For a number of reasons Chazelle has proven himself to be a filmmaker whose works demand to be noticed. After something as intensely engaging as Whiplash there was little question about the filmmaker's ability to grab your attention. With La La Land, though, Chazelle also proves his worth when it comes to quality escapism.