Young writer/director Damien Chazelle made a hell of a splash a couple of years ago with his indie breakout Whiplash (2014). As a thirty-something director with no feature films beforehand, the direction of the film felt like a steady hand, someone who had been there before and knew what he was doing. Now he returns with La La Land, an original musical. While I personally feel it doesn’t quite top Whiplash, few films do. This is still a wonderful musical that makes you feel happy and light on your feet. Even without watching the film, listening to the soundtrack makes three-feeted dancers like myself feel like we belong on the chorus line on Broadway. Plus it boasts some of the strongest performances of both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s careers, and of course its a perfect love letter to the Hollywood musicals of the 50’s and 60’s.
So the story follows Mia, a down on her luck wanna be actress who works on the Warner Bros. lot at a coffee shop when she’s not rushing off to film and TV auditions. One night out she becomes acquainted with Sebastian, a jazz pianist whose jazz music disrupts the club he’s performing in. The two meet again a few months later at an 80’s pool party, one of the funniest scenes of the movie, and soon a relationship buds between the two. Mia of course continues to persevere in her dreams of being an actress, but also opens up to being a writer and accomplishes a one-woman-show play as well, and Sebastian dreams of having a traditional-only jazz club that’ll blow the competition out of the way. But then he is approached by an old friend and becomes part of a band that’s a kind of revolutionary jazz style, which goes against his sayings of traditional only, and he and Mia realize that perhaps compromise is part of reaching your dreams, or it could be the end of them.
So obviously the big appeal of the movie is the music, and composer Justin Herwitz has done a beautiful job resurrecting a once long-dead genre. True, we’ve had films like Into the Woods (2014) and Les Miserables (2012) in the past few years be successful big-budgeted musicals, but those were adaptations, whereas this is a true original musical. Basically every major song will get stuck in your head, and especially the main piano theme that plays throughout the soundtrack. Once again I’ll highlight the performances from Stone and Gosling, two actors who seem to be at their finest when they’re together. I recall Crazy, Stupid Love (2011) a really funny romantic comedy, and some of the stronger moments of the film were when both Stone and Gosling were on-screen together. They just have a natural chemistry. I hope they work together again. Now I’ll say this: this is technically speaking a perfect movie. The cinematography is gorgeous and Oscar-worthy, the costumes are stunning, the production design will dazzle your eyes, the music pleasures your ears, the editing is perfectly synced up to your Singin’ in the Rain (1952) or West Side Story (1961) old-style editing, and the script has quite a few stinger lines that will stay with you. Plus the two-plus hour runtime passes by really quick. I almost felt by the time we got to the last scene that there should be another twenty minutes, but still as it is it’s a satisfying pace and for me, especially, they really stuck that landing. Some have complained that the end wasn’t great and it should have ended a certain way, but the way they went, which of course I won’t spoil here, was exactly the way it should have been.
Probably the only complaint I have is that the love story between Mia and Sebastian follows your standard ups and downs with other romantic films. We see them at first a bit reluctant, then the love actually blossoms, then we see her leave a guy for him, then they go steady, then they have their difficulties, and there’s a falling out yelling scene. The technical aspects of the film rise above this and this basic love story doesn’t cripple the film. Otherwise we have supporting characters played by J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, and Rosemarie DeWitt in the supporting cast, and they all get only one scene. It would have been cool to see them throughout, but then again the focus is on Mia and Sebastian, so I can understand the decision to have them all appear in one scene each then duck out. Otherwise I really don’t have much to complain about.
So overall, yes, it’s a wonderful musical, it’s got its heart beating strong and loud, and, not to overuse the word, but wonderful just sums it up. I defy any lover of musicals not to be in joy upon seeing it, any fan of comedies not to laugh, any fan of love stories not to swoon for Gosling and Stone, any fan of great filmmaking not to be in awe of the technical aspects, and any lover of film to skip this one. This is that rare film that satisfies just about everybody and makes you really want to go around and find those musicals of old to re-watch or experience for the first time. Perhaps both this and the upcoming remake of The Beauty and the Beast brings a resurgence of musicals. After all, back in the day, they were one of the three big genres, with the other two being westerns and comedies. And in a world where a bit of nostalgia is craved every once in a while, this is a good time to have a movie like this, and yes, I do hope it inspires others, not just with the message of following your dreams, but also in inspiring more entertaining films like this one to emerge from Hollywood.
My rating: 10/10.