La La Land ★★★½

Movies that pay tribute to classic Hollywood sometimes derail when they get bogged down in homage and lose track of their own message. Audiences saw this on full display just last year with movies like the Coen BrothersHail, Caesar! and Woody Allen’s Café Society. Though each of these films succeeded to a different extent, each got at least a little lost in its own tribute. La La Land makes no such mistake. Instead, it feels more like an Old Hollywood film made for modern audiences. Faces of yesterday’s stars like Ingrid Bergman, Charlie Chaplin, and Marilyn Monroe pop up in the background to remind the audience of the giants who once walked the streets that the characters are now inhabiting, but the story is focused and compelling with a charm that would’ve made Judy Garland proud.

LLL d 41-42_6689.NEFDamien Chazelle had high expectations to meet after his 2014 hit Whiplash. He met, and perhaps exceeded, these expectations while concocting a film that had an entirely different tone from his previous project. The two films share similar themes in that they both confront the cost of chasing a seemingly impossible dream, but Chazelle approached each project in a unique manner. After only his third feature film, and his second major project, Chazelle is already becoming a household name. His rapidly growing reputation is well deserved. La La Land, like Whiplash, is excellently paced, never failing to keep the viewer invested.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have a palpable chemistry in the film, perhaps created while working as a romantic pair on previous projects (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad). Both actors manage to bring out their respective characters’ complexities. Both are flawed and insecure, and they perfectly emphasize the struggle of trying to live out a dream career in show-business.

Gosling’s Sebastian is a jazz pianist living off minuscule wages, and fighting to keep the music that is so important to him alive. He takes each insult to jazz as a personal affront, and he seems to have tunnel vision when it comes to his passion. He dreams of opening his own jazz bar, where he can restore people’s appreciation of the dying genre that he loves so much. The performance isn’t exactly unfamiliar territory for Gosling, but what he does, he does well.

Stone’s Mia is a young girl whose desire for an acting career comes not from a quest for fame and recognition, but from a passion for classic movies. She has a romantic view of Hollywood, and is reluctant to play the networking game. She seems to believe that her talent should speak for itself, but her insecurity makes it difficult to know if she really has the talent to make it as an actress. Mia is also written and played much like the screwball comedy heroines that she seems to pay tribute to, as her character is sweet, intelligent, independent, and quick-witted. An argument could be made that Stone’s performance is so perfect that it hijacks the film from Gosling and the rest of the supporting cast, but it seems to me that it instead perfectly compliments the rest of the performances. It is tough to argue, though, that in the end this isn’t Stone’s movie.

The film’s use of lighting is sublime. The characters are often lit as if they were in a stage play. A particularly striking example occurs toward the end of the film as Mia gives an audition for what is supposed to be her big break. The casting director simply asks her to tell a story rather than read lines. As she begins speaking about her beloved aunt’s time living in Paris, she is cast under a spotlight and she begins singing a tender song about the sacrifices that someone has to make to pursue their dreams. I’d be lying if I said I that I didn’t tear up in the emotional moment.

La La Land manages to transcend the musical genre and instead speaks to universal emotions while making sparing, but effective use of its music. With other films, many viewers weary of the genre often grow frustrated with long musical numbers that seem to meander rather than progress the film. With La La Land, though, there is no such complaint to be made. The film is a delight to watch, and has a bittersweet ending executed masterfully. It spends its final moments paying one last homage to the films from which it drew inspiration. It’s setting brings back memories of Casablanca (of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into his). However, in tone and in message, the final scene reminds the viewer of the finale of Jacques Demy‘s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

I’ll admit that I had my doubts about the Best Picture discussion that the film has received to this point, but after having seen it I’d consider it one of the best candidates for the honor. I must also admit that in the days since I’ve seen it, I’ve listened through the wonderful soundtrack more than once. If I can say one thing about La La Land, it is that it will make you feel. It provides an array of emotion that should delight any film fan, and it absolutely must be seen by all.

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