Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Movie Review: "La La Land"

Damien Chazelle's La La Land is a love letter of sorts. It's a paean to the musicals of yesterday, a tribute to the dreamers who power so much of show business, a salute to the City of Angels itself, and, of course, a love letter to love and the often-circuitous path it takes. That's an ambitious agenda, but Chazelle hits each note perfectly, creating a magic film to be savored over and over again.

From the minute the film in all its beautiful technicolor glory opens (a direct contrast to Chazelle's last film, Whiplash, which was both emotionally and atmospherically dark), you know you're in for a treat. Traffic has come to a dead stop on the highway (not a rare occurrence in LA, or almost anywhere these days), and suddenly, a beautiful girl in a brightly colored dress begins to hum, syncopating the rhythm of the horns and the chaos, and then the crowd breaks into song, celebrating the dreams that drove them to this city, to pursue a career in show business. It's a fun start to this movie and it signals this won't be business as usual.

In the midst of the traffic jam are Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), who have a not-quite-meet-cute as the traffic dissipates. Mia is an aspiring actress who works as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot, while Sebastian is a jazz musician who dreams of opening his own club someday. But his problem is he's a jazz purist, and although the genre is waning in popularity, he's convinced if people just listen to it, they'll fall as hard as he has. This obsession causes him no end of misery, since he can't bring himself to settle and play other things, which leads to another less-than-special encounter with Mia.

But it's not soon afterward when Mia gets her revenge, in a delightfully campy scene, and when the two finally talk and trade barbs, it's clear to everyone (except them, of course), that this pair has incredible chemistry. They're determined to ignore it, however, and cement those feelings in a charming song-and-dance number with the city's skyline at sunset as its backdrop. It really feels like a classic musical at that point, although with a slightly modern twist.

At the movie's core, along with Mia and Seb's burgeoning relationship, is a key question: should you follow your dreams forever, or is there a time you have to either settle, or give up and grow up? Is the power of those dreams enough to sustain you even if it looks like nothing is going your way, or does that make you unrealistic? Both characters struggle with that dilemma, and it puts the inevitable strain on their relationship, as each does what they feel they need to. And the less said about the rest, the more you'll enjoy the movie.

This movie works on so many levels, in large part because Gosling and Stone both light up the screen (it's no secret I'm obsessed with both of them) and bring out the best in each other. As in Crazy, Stupid, Love, their chemistry just sizzles, and you root for them to get together.

Gosling, who seems often to shy away from his natural leading-man status, takes full advantage here, and brings a debonair song-and-dance-man charm to his role (good to see his early days on The All-New Mickey Mouse Club paid off), as well as a deep well of emotion. Stone, who appeared on Broadway as Sally Bowles in one of the revivals of Cabaret, doesn't belt her way through this movie, thankfully, because that would have felt all wrong. Her voice is light but not lightweight, and she is the perfect foil for Gosling. She, too, brings a lot of emotion to her role.

I really loved this, in part because I'm a fan of musicals, and in part because I love these actors, but mostly because it's an excellent movie. This isn't quite a traditional musical, as there's a lot of dialogue, as well. The songs are a perfect counterpoint at particular times throughout. I've been listening to the songs on YouTube since I saw the movie, and I am honestly thinking of seeing it again. I can't say yet whether this was my favorite movie of the year, as I have a lot of movies to see, but I know it will be among my top three at the very least.

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