I try to go into films wide open, hoping to love each one I see. I take no pleasure in ripping a movie to shreds, because the amount of work that goes into making them is staggering and no one intends to make a terrible film. Still, I wasn't quite sold on "La La Land." I thought the entire thing looked like pretentious homage more than a story worth telling. In spite of my usual openness, I was ready to tear this one to shreds.
Within the first five minutes I saw how wrong I was.
The story that "La La Land" is telling is a simple one. Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a struggling jazz musician who can barely pay the bills while remaining true to himself. Emma Stone is Mia, a struggling actress starting to think she's not good enough to make it. The two of them keep having antagonistic run-ins with each other that barely can be described as a "meet-cute."
This very simple framework is set against the backdrop of a Cinemascope musical from the 1950s. There are multiple musical numbers alongside a few classic dance numbers that feel pulled straight from the heyday of classic Hollywood. Astaire and Garland would have been proud to star in this film. Yet the film is so much more than the sum of its parts.
This is the third film (after "Crazy, Stupid, Love" and "Gangster Squad") where audiences watch Gosling and Stone slowly fall in love, and it's still a delight to see. Their easygoing chemistry along with Damien Chazelle's graceful camera work and Linus Sandgren's lush cinematography turn "La La Land" into cinematic magic instead of two hours of forgettable artifice.
Chazelle proved himself a gorgeously fluid writer/director with "Whiplash." Here he does something altogether different by giving us constant glimpses of beauty instead of wallowing in psychological pain. "La La Land" doesn't just celebrate love while surrounded by song and dance, as there's something quite melancholy at its core. The film isn't content just showing us the surface shine of the City of Angels, but gives weight to the cost of those dreams that keep the city alight.
Gosling and Stone aren't just pretty faces to hang some good musical numbers on. Instead they breathe life into two characters who want things to work out so badly that they suffer for their art every day. The very simply-drawn yet incredibly nuanced script makes us love Sebastian and Mia like family. Their tribulations hurt us just as much as their triumphs make our sprits soar.
From the show-stopping opening number on an L.A. freeway to a sweetly-heartfelt soft shoe on Mulholland Drive, "La La Land" isn't just a movie for lovers of musicals; it's also a movie for lovers of humanity. The film is a perfect Christmas/New Year's/Inauguration gift, spending almost its entire running time focused on things that bring us together instead of choices that keep us apart.
"La La Land"
Dir. Damien Chazelle
Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX