La La Land (2016)

La La Land is about love.

Get used to that word, you are going to hear it often in this review.

This is not only a film about the idealized romantic love we have for that certain someone who makes our heart ache, but also the love we have for that seemingly unattainable dream. La La Land pits this idealized love against the reality of constant heartbreak. Ultimately, the film is a love letter to those who dare to dream.

THE GLITZ, GLAM AND REALITY

We follow aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and struggling jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they face disappointment after disappointment in Los Angeles. When they stumble into each others’ lives, sparks and catchy musical numbers fly. But as their careers begin to take off, they find it more difficult to keep their passion alive.

From La La Land’s first sequence, Director Damien Chazelle creates a surreal, technicolor world full of catchy jazz numbers, beautiful set pieces and vibrant colors. This is the city of dreams afterall, an idealized vision of Los Angeles. His dynamic camera is almost always moving, mixing quickly and subtly edited cuts with long, tracking shots that follow our characters as they dance through the gorgeous sets. Stand out sequences include that wonderfully crazy opening sequence on a highway overpass and “A Lovely Night,” a duet/dance with Mia and Sebastian on a hill overlooking Los Angeles.

These sequences are loving callbacks to classical Hollywood musicals like Singing in the Rain. Some of the best scenes have no dialogue, relying on the visuals and music to tell the story. There is a great sequence in a planetarium that I will leave for you to discover.

But Chazelle isn’t afraid to show this world can break your heart. When the opening sequence on the highway ends, the people who danced so joyously return to their cars, still stuck in gridlocked traffic. Every flourish of fantasy is almost always countered.  His camera stands still during these more “realistic” moments, almost studious in his careful framing of his stars.

The stationary camera chronicles Mia and Sebastian’s travails through the frustrating side of Hollywood. Mia goes through hellish auditions where she is cut off or interrupted. She also has to endure the demeaning process of networking with pretentious fakes. Sebastian can never play the music he truly wants to play if he expects to get paid.

Yet the La La Land never completely crushes their dreamers. The glitz of Hollywood is tempting, but the work to get there sometimes carries a heavy personal price. The film admires these dreamers as they persevere despite the hardships of reality.

THE FOOLS WHO DREAM

Emma Stone gives her best performance to date as Mia, the lively young actress full of infectious hope. Stone has always been naturally charismatic and that continues here, but she brings very real emotion to the character here. The epitome of this is the “Audition” scene, which brings the vulnerability of the character together with that hope she clings to so readily.

On the other hand, Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian is the angrier artist, the type who pushes back when LA pushes him. Gosling deserves credit for his subtle turn as the dry-humored and cool musician. His role isn’t “showy,” expressing most of his emotion through body language and looks. At the same time, his stoic nature is often on the receiving end of the film’s sillier moments and Gosling’s natural comedian comes out.

The two have excellent chemistry together and their relationship feels real as it grows organically. Their relationship sometimes comes off as a fantasy, an idealized vision straight out of Hollywood, but it makes sense. They are two dreamers who found each other. Every flight of fancy is emotionally genuine, a testament to the actors’ talents.

Both Stone and Gosling sing and dance in all of their musical numbers, with all of their “imperfections.” Stone has a wonderful voice and while Gosling’s voice isn’t as strong, it has a strong melancholic tone.  While this may sound vaguely insulting, it actually helps the film. Because they aren’t super athletic dancers or singers with perfect pitch, it makes them much more relatable and charming.

LA DEE DAA

The strength of any musical is its music and composer Justin Hurwitz gives La La Land its backbone. The choice of jazz rather than pop music is a great choice. As Sebastian says, traditional jazz is “conflict and compromise, and it’s very, very exciting!” It’s a perfect (And honestly, a bit obvious) metaphor for the unpredictable nature of love.

Hurwitz utilizes “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” prominently throughout the film, playing when their love burns brightest, but also during their difficult times. Yes, every film has a soundtrack theme but the music is almost like its own character in the film, a narrator of sorts. Its voice weaves into your brain whispering those sweet nothings that make your heart soar. Or it shreds your heart with a sad tune.

The film’s stand out songs include the aforementioned “A Lovely Night,” the melancholy “City of Stars” and the beautiful “Audition,” though that song lasts a couple of verses too long. These songs and melodies will get stuck in your head and you will be humming them for days.

HERE’S TO THE MESS WE MAKE

La La Land is film as it should be. Long after seeing this film, it lingered with me, as it struck a raw  and real emotion. Maybe that makes me an easy mark for this film, but very few cinematic experiences carry this much emotion. Equal parts tragedy and joyful triumph, this is one of the best films of 2016.

SCORE: 10 OUT OF 10