Monday, February 13, 2017

La La Land

Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Tom Everett Scott, Josh Pence
Running Time: 128 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There will be those with whom La La Land will strongly connect right out of the gate. It'll be love at first sight for anyone bemoaning the fact they don't make musicals anymore, much less old school Hollywood musicals. For them, the very idea that one could be successfully made today and it not be based on previously produced material from the stage or screen once seems impossible. As does the notion that said musical, released in the year 2016, could not only do exceptionally well critically and commercially, but go on to earn a record-tying fourteen Oscar nominations.  For them, the film's opening sequence, and best musical number, as drivers exit their cars during a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway and spontaneously burst into brilliantly choreographed song and dance, will literally be a dream come true. Going in knowing what I did about the film and my tastes, I knew I wouldn't be one of those people. Hardly predisposed to nostalgic movie memories for the genre itself, this would have to reach me some other way. And it would have to really work for it. It can be tough approaching a film this late in the conversation, especially when that discussion revolves around it be being hands-down the best of the year and frontrunner for Best Picture. You can't ignore that. It's there. And it's also baggage.

What hasn't been discussed much about the film is just how few musical numbers there are, or maybe just how carefully they've been placed into the narrative by writer/director Damien Chazelle, mostly in its first half. This is appropriate since La La Land is very much a tale of two movies. One seems tailor made for that aforementioned audience clamoring for the genre's comeback, while the second is a relationship drama about lost love, broken dreams and rejection sure to strike a chord with more skeptical, cynical filmgoers like myself. This was the only movie from the past year I was actually apprehensive to see out of concern it could be a disaster. Under normal circumstances that would be fine. But not from the director of Whiplash and starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Thankfully, it's easy to see why everyone's going crazy over it. There are about fifteen things, big and small, you could list that are great about the film, and out of those, the natural, easygoing chemistry between its stars has to rank near the top.

We knew when they first shared the screen in 2011's Crazy, Stupid, Love that what Stone and Gosling have and how they play off each other can't just simply be replicated by another random actor pairing. And now two careers whose have been steadily and consistently rising are given the opportunity to show the uninitiated what they're capable of on the biggest stage possible  And still, the whole thing had me worried as it's a bit of a tightrope walk throughout. Even after seeing it, this one had to really sit a while since it does leave you with something. While that "something" isn't ideas, certain scenes and sequences still linger long afterward, indicating this isn't as fluffy as some of its detractors have accused. There's a lot to appreciate here, even if different audiences may find it in entirely different places.

It's winter in Los Angeles and after a brief, but unpleasant highway encounter with struggling Jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling), Warner Bros studio lot barista and aspiring actress Mia (Stone) is off to another eventually unsuccessful audition. When an attempt by her roommates to brighten her mood by hitting up a Hollywood Hills party ends without her car, she finds herself at a restaurant involved in another chance meeting with Seb, just fired from his gig by owner Bill (J.K. Simmons) for slipping into jazz improvisation during his mandated set. This time, he's even more of a jerk to her. It isn't until a couple of months later that they really connect at a party and soon start to fall head over heels for each other after a few memorable dates at the movies, a jazz club, the studio lot and the Griffith Observatory.

As rapidly as Mia and Seb's relationship is progressing, both their career aspirations have cripplingly stalled, with the painful rejections of the auditioning process proving too much for Mia as she starts working on her single-actress stage play, wondering if she's even cut out for this business at all. Seb's unable to hold down a steady gig, causing him to shelve his dream of opening a jazz club in favor of joining the band of his old friend, Keith (John Legend) as their keyboardist.  But when something starts happening for one of them, their relationship is given a serious test, as they must decide whether fulfilling their dreams in a town known for routinely shattering them is worth the sacrifice of each other.  

That these are two clearly written and defined characters is important to get out of the way first because if they weren't none of the riskier elements would fall into to place like they do. And while there are times they fall into place perfectly, there are also occasional instances when they don't. There were definitely points where a musical number seemed to stretch on a bit too long or a dialogue exchange dragged, but it's tough to tell how much of that can be attributed to it just going with the territory when you make this type of  film, which undoubtedly plays by a different set of rules than usual. That all of this is okay is a credit to how well Chazelle confidently announces from the beginning what we're getting, and while it veers from that formula a bit in the second half, it's still fair to say he never strays too far.

You're either on board or you're not and chances are you'll know within a matter of minutes. It's apparent the movie means business when we see that classic Cinemascope logo pop up on the screen and, following that sensational pre-credits number, a giant 1950's-style title card. While the inventively choreographed "Another Day of Sun" is by far the sunniest, peppiest number in the film, all the ones that follow really strong as well, with the more melancholy and likely Oscar-winning "City of Stars" and Audition ("The Fools Who Dream") being standouts.

Stone and Gosling aren't singers but neither are their characters so the fact that they're not world class crooners or even dancers actually lends an added air of credibility to the proceedings. And it should be noted that such a criticism couldn't even extend to the former, who really acquits herself well in both departments. This is a musical, but as strange as it sounds, that's not what either were hired for. Before anything, they're completely believable as a couple, and for all the attention the songs and musical sequences have gotten, the biggest relief for me is the emphasis on the non-musical scenes and story.

The best moments involve Mia and Seb just talking and getting to know each other against the backdrop of an admittedly heightened and idealized L.A, presented in all its vivid, colorful, widescreen glory by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, foregoing digital to shoot on film and emulate the look and feel of the classic musicals that obviously inspired this one. He's succeeded, as no recently released picture looks quite as inviting as this, and in a really different way that immediately sets it apart. While it's easy to roll your eyes these days at anyone claiming you "have to" see a certain film on the big screen, this actually meets the qualification. Similar praise can be reserved for the costume and production design, which, despite being a throwback, has kind of this timeless quality that's unusual for a film set in present day, with Justin Hurwitz's musical score perfectly and subtly underlining that.

If Gosling's contributions have gone somewhat overlooked in the quieter, more understated role that's only because Emma Stone leaves such an indelible mark. He's nearly as good as the struggling pianist, but it hardly matters since neither performance could fully exist without the other and if you recast just one of them, we wouldn't be having the same conversation about the film we are now.  Despite her rapid ascent and charismatic screen presence over the past five to ten years, Emma isn't necessarily an actress who can be plugged into any part in any project, but she can do this. And does she ever nail it. Mia is pretty much the dream role for her, taking full advantage of the sense of humor, elegance, goofiness and vulnerability she's been bringing to the table since we first saw her a decade ago.

Beaten down by constant rejection, Stone's best scene is an emotional audition where Mia's delivering brilliant, a heart wrenching monologue that's curtly interrupted by a casting agent's utter apathy. The look on her face says everything. No one cares. And she'll mostly be in this alone so it's time to toughen up or get out. It's probably the most realistic moment in a film that consistently and effectively operates on a level of hyper-realism for most of its running time. This also sets the table for what comes later, when the relationship hits a roadblock that doesn't feel manufactured and we're treated to an inspired final fifteen minutes that then proves it isn't, deviating just enough from conventional expectations.

While it's been a bit overstated just how much of a turn the last third takes, this won't be considered a tragedy anytime soon, as both characters aren't exactly suffering. And yet, Chazelle has us so entrenched in this world of theirs, we believe that in some bittersweet way they are. That it's well executed and has something to say about the messiness of life and the pain of missed opportunities only bolsters the overall viewing experience. Having already given us one of the deepest, most thought provoking endings in years with Whiplash, it was brave of Chazelle to even attempt surprising us a second time. Then again, this whole thing is kind of brave when you think about it. There are so many different ways La La Land could have all gone wrong, and that it doesn't, might be more of a feat than all the awards it's received. It's always great seeing something new, but what can be even greater is seeing something old in an entirely fresh light, making it feel new again.

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