“La La Land” is a fantastic slice of movie magic. Taking cues from old musical productions of the early 20th century, Damien Chazelle tells a charming and human story that pays homage to the legacy of Los Angeles while crafting its own spirit that blends old-cinema style and modern human honesty.
Damien Chazelle floored me with his debut film “Whiplash”. The style, intensity and quality of the fierce journey of an obsessively-driven jazz drummer was my favorite movie of 2014. Chazelle takes his same writing and directing talent to a film that, while lighter and more pleasing, is no less substantive and remarkable, utilizing his unreasonable amount of filmmaking talent on the ambitious west coast love story “La La Land”.
From the opening titles advertising the widescreen “CinemaScope” presentation of the film to the incredible long one-take dance numbers (such as the awe-inspiring opening scene), “La La Land” pays tribute to the legacy of Hollywood cinema and on-screen musicals. The style of melodic show the film exhibits is less of a platform for vocal performance and more centered around dance and jazz instrumentals that call back to the 1940s-50s era of musicals. “Whiplash” had some great original jazz music written for it by Justin Hurwitz. This film has Hurwitz back again for more jazz tunes, but also a slew of catchy melodies and singles that collected several Oscar nominations, and succeed in dominating my headspace for days at a time once I get any of the songs stuck in my head. “La La Land” has a remarkable and wonderful soundtrack, but that’s only where the wonder begins.
Beyond structure and style, the movie has endless homages to specific scenes or imagery from classic Hollywood musical productions. At the point in the film where Ryan Gosling’s ‘Sebastian’ and Emma Stone’s ‘Mia’ walk back from a party, they engage in light banter that’s reminiscent of a similar scene from “It’s A Wonderful Life”. When that then segues into a wonderfully contentious sunset dance number, one could definitely be reminded of the “Isn’t It a Lovely Day” tap dance number from the film “Top Hat”. There’s also an extended fantasy sequence in the movie that references many bits throughout musical film history such as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Funny Face”. In general, Gosling’s dancing style seems to be intentionally similar to that of Fred Astaire as well.
While this movie has one foot firmly planted in the past, it’s well-aware of where it’s going too. Damien Chazelle succeeds in translating many of these old tropes into something more modern and fresh, such as through camera movement that is much more kinetic than it was in any old-school musicals. The editing also keeps an active pace, and is very similar to the striking editing style found in “Whiplash”. These technical aspects aren’t the only ways in which “La La Land” updates the old formula though.
While the main characters have their playful banter and dreamlike musical numbers, the film occasionally shows them in a surprisingly authentic light, in dramatic and tense moments that wouldn’t commonly be found in any old musicals. The characters of Sebastian and Mia live through a romance that is often manifested as a colorful and fantastical Hollywood story, but is also fraught with very real conflicts two such people would actually experience. Their elevated highs are often contrasted with intense, nail-biting lows that hit almost too close to home at times. While the old-fashioned musical moments are exciting, uplifting and technically wondrous, they are rivaled by the intimate feeling and raw performances of Gosling and Stone during those more tumultuous moments of their relationship. And sometimes those two different dramatic styles are even mixed together within a single scene, becoming something both elevated and grounded, such as the number “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, which is likely to be credited as a contributing factor for Stone’s potential Oscar win for Best Actress.
As a result of this film’s approach to telling its story, it asks an important question about how we should honor the past yet also break new ground for the future. Not only is it an important question the film raises, but it can very easily be turned around and imposed upon the film itself; because while the movie owes so much to old Hollywood musicals, it also takes several turns that go against the conventions of that genre. Does it change too much about the classic formula? Or could it have tread even more new ground? Whether it be about the movie itself or about art in general going forward, there’s a complex discussion to be had there. But for me, whatever balance Damien Chazelle and company found is no doubt mesmerizing, captivating, refreshing and absolutely deserving of the many nominations it’s received this year.
Dazzling, stylish and aspirational while remaining emotionally-grounded and substantive, “La La Land” is a human love story, an impressive feat of jazz musical production, and nostalgic love letter to the unique identity of the city of Los Angeles.
+ Remarkable, impressive and charming performances
+ Amazing technical design and choreography
+ Striking, evocative editing and shooting methods
+ Compelling mix of old-fashioned production and modern character drama
– Much of the song-and-dance production doesn’t live up to the old classics it’s inspired by
Seth Zielinski is a film enthusiast and total sucker for classic Hollywood art deco imagery, and nostalgia of any kind.
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