Every now and then a Hollywood film comes along and schools you in exactly how a real cinematic film is done and this year that movie is Damien Chazelle’s new masterpiece, La La Land. Already having astounded us a couple years back with his jazz band drama Whiplash, which also picked up an Academy Award for best screenplay, La La Land quickly became my favorite this year which astounds me because it is a traditional musical, a genre I outright despise. Looking at that last statement, it seems really harsh, but I just want to get across exactly how much these films can be like nails on a chalkboard. Looking at just the poster, the names of Chazelle and stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone give me the power to muscle through my dislike.
The film is like a Los Angeles fable with our two leads at separate points in their lives. Mia, played by Stone, is a young woman from middle America looking to be a movie star but works her days at the coffee shop right next to a major studio, rushing to endless auditions that end up in career heartache. On the flip side, Sebastian (Gosling) is a jazz pianist who lives and breathes his style of music, frequenting the coffee shop across the street from a famed jazz club which has rebranded as a tapas bar and struggling to play the setlist at a local restaurant. A chance encounter brings both of our characters together in a whirlwind romance as the two push each other to explore their dreams and get what’s most important to both of them.
Between Whiplash and La La Land, I’m beginning to get the overwhelming sense that Damien Chazelle really loves jazz. With elements that appear in both films, like the slow death of the genre and the need to put everything on the line for the love of it, La La Land is a far more optimistic film but the deep attention to character and development is there. Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone fully embody everything Sebastian and Mia are and make them fully fleshed out and real even when they break into song. It is a truly refreshing caliber of performance and a welcome break from all the ill-conceived Hollywood projects.
What struck me the most about La La Land was it’s command on the new by way of the old. The film moves and breathes like a classic Gene Kelly musical yet still keeps the sensibilities of today, incorporating all the trappings of modern day life, something evident by just looking at the two leads. Sebastian is very much infatuated with the simpler world and the sweat of an earlier era of fierce musical standards while Mia is more towards what a twenty-something is in the world today. Chazelle and his cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who did David O. Russell’s last two features, transport you to a world that is quite ethereal, breathtakingly beautiful and even takes a couple swipes at L.A. traffic while they’re at it. Sure to dazzle the young, old and everything in between, we could be looking at a best picture winner here. Don’t miss this one! 5/5