Mark Reviews Movies

La La Land

LA LA LAND

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, Finn Wittrock, J.K. Simmons, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Tom Everett Scott

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some language)

Running Time: 2:08

Release Date: 12/9/16 (limited); 12/16/16 (wide)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 15, 2016

The characters in musicals sing and dance, of course, because there is no other way for them to express the depth of their emotions fully and accurately. That's one justification for the central conceit of the form, and it's the one to which La La Land likely subscribes—or, at least, the one that most people will assign to the film.

There's another possible rationale for the singing and dancing of writer/director Damien Chazelle's old-fashioned and invigorating musical, which is that it is populated with characters who live and breathe the entertainment industry. The star-crossed lovers of the story are an aspiring actress who wants to be in the movies and a struggling jazz pianist who knows the classics, so when they have to express their hopes and dreams and desires for success and each other, of course they'll do it in the fashion of the golden days of Hollywood.

These are comforting thoughts for rational minds that need justification for such things, and if they work to help one buy the conceit, that's fine. I like to imagine that Chazelle has Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling sing and dance their way through this story of artistic and romantic passion for three reasons. First, they are charming performers. Second, they are in a musical. Third, that's what charming performers do in a musical.

Chazelle doesn't need to explain why these characters break into song or start hoofing around places in Los Angeles. He's a smart enough filmmaker to know this, and his film is the better for it.

He has created a musical that features an assortment of show-stopping numbers, and he has also crafted a bittersweet love story that presents a tough truth about the ways that aspirations work. It's not a matter of the elements of a musical interrupting the love story or of the love story getting in the way of the musical elements. Chazelle has made it so that one cannot exist without the other.

We can imagine these characters going through the motions of their love affair without them crooning and shuffling along Mulholland Drive. We could envision a film with this exact scenario in which the lovers do not find themselves escaping the earthly bonds of the Griffith Observatory, only to perform a silhouetted ballroom dance among the stars. Sure, we could imagine such a film, but Chazelle forces us to ask why—when we have what he has given us—we would even want to imagine such a thing.

Stone plays Mia, whose day job is working at a coffee shop on a studio lot and juggling shifts to attend auditions whenever they present themselves. Gosling plays Sebastian, who plays piano at any gig that pays and wants to open a jazz club of his own. They meet, by chance and briefly, on a backed-up L.A. highway. He honks at her to move with the sudden flow of traffic, and she flips him off as he passes.

The highway isn't backed up because of a musical number, although, in Chazelle's mind, the situation presents the perfect setup for one. The film gets off to a rough start, despite its immediate energy. There are two major numbers (with the second one almost split in two by way of a drastic location shift) before our main characters actually meet. The first is on the highway, where a medley of various music on the radio dials of rows of cars eventually focus on a single tune. That leads the motorists to exit their vehicles and dance around/on the stalled traffic. The second has Mia and her roommates preparing for a party before arriving at said party—a Christmas shindig where, since this is L.A., the pool is still open.

These are slightly off-putting in a way that's difficult to pinpoint until the central story of Mia and Sebastian's relationship begins its paces. There's a vast difference and specific distinction between the ways Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren capture the opening numbers and the ones that follow. Essentially, the two musical numbers near the beginning of the film sacrifice the movements of the performers in favor of the near-constant motion of the camera. Instead of highlighting the dancing (choreographed by Mandy Moore), Chazelle and Sandgren show off the way they can create what seem to be single, fluid shots, which weave in every conceivable direction through the choreography, including one—admittedly neat—shot in which the camera follows a man jumping into the pool (If there are cuts in these sequences, editor Tom Cross does an impressive job of hiding them).

With that busy business out of the way, the film transitions narratively and formally into something simpler and more focused. That's when it really comes alive in a way that captures the look, feel, and spirit of those musicals of the olden days.

The start is a bit of playfulness on a bench along that famous street in the Hollywood Hills, as Sebastian kicking some dirt on Mia's shoes turns into them synchronizing their movements. He begins shuffling and tapping on the bench, and suddenly, they're dancing in the dusk, while Chazelle's camera captures it all with long, steady crane shot. It's a delightful scene that ushers in this more relaxed, more classically styled type of filmmaking (Sandgren lights everything in the manner of lovely exaggeration that comes with the use of stage lighting, filled with colorful gels and spotlights).

There are more such scenes—the dance among the stars, a concert for Sebastian's new steady gig where Mia realizes that jazz-fusion music is killing her beau's soul, an audition piece set to music that's a bravura display of acting through a song on Stone's part. The songs, with music by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are catchy pieces of big band jazz, along with soulful melodies of love and regret. The story, which traces the couple's romantic fall in conjunction with the rise of their individual professional successes, never feels perfunctory, either. It's lovely and tender and tragic, and the film's big finale, which retraces the path of love with what could have been, is an exceptional piece of montage and mixed media.

It's a shame about the rough start to La La Land, but does it really matter when the rest of the film is as assured and, at times, exhilarating as it is? Technically, yes, it does, but who cares? That one's rhetorical.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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