La La Land opens with a breathtaking dance number that that ends with an old-fashioned, fifties style title card. The film is shot in Cinemascope, there are countless homages and throwbacks to the great musicals of the fifties and sixties, and the vibrant visual style is very Technicolor-esque. This movie is so shamelessly old-fashioned, and frankly, that’s one of its biggest strengths. It’s been deemed “a love letter to old Hollywood,” and I wouldn’t disagree. The smooth, flowing cinematography that captures a wide location, the long takes that go on and on without cutting, and the almost fantasy tone of some scenes reminded me of old films like Singin’ in the Rain (Ryan Gosling even swings around a lamppost), and every scene is brimming with love for that time period.
Despite the callbacks to cinema of a certain time period, La La Land is still one of the most original films I’ve seen in years. It follows two lovers who are pursuing their dreams of show business, one being a piano player with a passion for classic jazz, and one an actress who is auditioning for parts in small TV shows and films, and how they help each other in their efforts. Their journeys toward their ultimate goals and their love for one another are told through catchy tunes and beautiful ballads that make this an extremely refreshing experience.
I really enjoy musicals when they’re done in such a way that allows the music to support the story. I remember seeing a few musicals as a kid, many of them Disney films, and getting really into the story but having my experience interrupted every few minutes by a song. The numbers in La La Land aren’t intrusive or forced, but rather they fit in very nicely with the progression of the story. Songs glide in seamlessly at just the right time, and I actually found myself looking forward to the next musical number, unlike my experience as a kid with the cartoons I would watch. The songs in this movie, aside from working very well with the film, are just great songs. Justin Hurwitz’s compositions are incredible, and I’ve been listening to the film’s soundtrack quite a bit since seeing the film.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were also impressive with their singing, and just their performances in general. The dance choreography is fantastic, also reminiscent of the fifties, and the way the two lead actors carried out those scenes was great to watch. One scene in particular, in which Stone and Gosling tap dance in front of a Los Angeles sunset, is one of the defining scenes in the film. Twenty or thirty years from now, people may even look back at that scene as one of the defining scenes in musical movie history. The musical sequences are that memorable.
Damien Chazelle impressed everyone big time, myself included, with his 2014 film, Whiplash (also about a jazz musician). In my mind, that film is as close to perfect as a movie can get. I was anticipating La La Land because the plot synopsis intrigued me and the music sounded interesting, but Chazelle was one of the biggest reasons I was so excited for this film. Whiplash is directed with such precision and such meaning, and the director was so in tune with the script and the characters, that the movie itself played out like a song. The beats of that film matched the beats of a drum solo, so the pacing and the direction fit the story and the themes of the movie perfectly. I was hoping for the same result with La La Land, since it also involves a lot of music, and that’s just what I got. This movie, similar to the great movie musicals that it takes inspiration from, flows like beautiful music. Some moments are repeated or recreated, like a song’s chorus, and the ending concludes the film with a grand climax before ending on a gentle and somber note.
La La Land is a stylistic movie for sure, and I greatly appreciate the care put into the artistic visuals and storytelling, but it never sacrifices substance for aesthetics. The screenplay is enthralling and the characters are realistic. I found myself becoming more invested in their lives and their passions as they became more involved with each other. The movie defies rules of realism at times and requests that the viewer suspend their disbelief so emotion can be expressed in dazzling and fascinating ways. This movie got my attention with its bright colors, rich production design, and lively musical numbers, but it maintained that hold on my interest with its relatable characters and passionate story that inspires its audience to follow their dreams.
— Camden McDonald