La La Land (2016) Review
A Symphonically Sublime Musical Paradise
When you’re not a fan of musicals, you’re unsure what to expect from a film like La La Land. After the powerhouse that was Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s directorial follow-up still has a knack for revolving around music but also integrates singing and dancing into this medley of pure orchestrated bliss. Although the genre is somewhat underappreciated from the other side of this clacking keyboard and dimly lit screen, La La Land is the type of film you never knew you needed but its introduction serves as an inspiration that sets all of your happiest emotions aflame.
The premise of La La Land is a simple one. Mia (Emma Stone) works at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros lot in Los Angeles. She uses the job to satisfy her financial situation as she pursues acting auditions. Unfortunately for Mia, the auditions never go well as she’s talked over, laughed at, and even interrupted while she reads. Meanwhile Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist who adores jazz. Sebastian wants to revive the music genre before it dies off completely and even wants to open his own club, but not having a penny to his name and his overdue bills are standing in his way. The paths of Mia and Sebastian intertwine in a way that begins as coincidence, but evolves into what they believe to be fate and they end up making beautiful music together because of it.
The common theme of La La Land is bad luck and things in life unfolding in unexpected ways. Mia has issues fitting in everywhere she goes while Sebastian is completely unchallenged and bored in the piano jobs he’s shoehorned into just to make a couple bucks. The two basically can’t stand each other until their love for music and performing reveals they have more in common than they initially think.
To backtrack a bit, the film opens with the most colorful traffic jam you have ever seen. The vehicles don’t move, but the drivers and passengers are brilliantly animated. They dance, they sing, and they jump and flip from the hood of one car to another as their vibrant clothes and vivid movements leap off the screen almost as much as they do. This musical number soon reveals that the film is broken down into seasons and perhaps this is the reason the film may remind you of (500) Days of Summer. Then a rambunctious pool party overlapped with overflowing cocktails is suddenly calmed by the introduction of artificial snow as an out-of-place Mia shuffles through a suspended celebration.
There’s this Looney Tunes cartoon from 1957 called "The Three Little Bops" directed by Friz Freleng that revolves around The Big Bad Wolf attempting to play trumpet in The Three Little Pigs jazz trio and it’s all that came to mind whenever La La Land would delve deeper into Sebastian’s jazz obsession. There’s likely little chance the animated short actually influenced the film, but the common themes of jazz and not fitting in at least slightly groups the film and cartoon in similar categories. As the relationship between Mia and Sebastian flourishes, their desire to see their dreams come to fruition also grows. Sebastian takes a job in a band with a former associate named Kieth (John Legend) who attempts to modernize jazz in a way that has Mia seeing Sebastian in a different light.
Damien Chazelle approaches the concept of sacrificing art for success in La La Land. Giving up what you believe in for the one you love and settling for what you’ve already accomplished instead of pushing towards that finish line you’ve consistently imagined are things Sebastian chooses to face in the film because he believes that’s what he needs to do to keep Mia happy. La La Land has this passion for music that bleeds from every frame. It has this classic feel in a modern world that allows the film to introduce something considered vintage to the people of today. La La Land has these musical montages without a line of dialogue that are always whimsical in nature, creatively imaginative in execution, and pure magic to enjoy. While one sequence may take the concept of “floating on cloud nine” a bit too seriously, the result is something artistically spectacular.
La La Land is overwhelmingly charming thanks to the performances of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Stone is determined yet vulnerable as Mia. She has a strong female presence with obvious talent that no one seems to be noticing. Her will is crushed over the course of the film, but Stone constantly has this glow about her even when things look their worst. There’s a humorous jerk found in Gosling’s Sebastian. His jazz club dream is trampled on repeatedly as Sebastian works in strict bars and an 80s cover band. Their chemistry together is undeniable. You can see and feel the love between them in the way they look and act around each other. The music they sing is heartfelt, memorable, and has no shame in punching you directly in your tear ducts.
As Sebastian introduces Mia to jazz, he breaks down the genre in what is perhaps the film’s most resonating piece of dialogue. These lines echo in your brain like Brad Pitt’s “America’s not a country, it’s a business,” speech from Killing Them Softly. There’s something to be said about a film that makes you feel so much. La La Land ignites that warm, fuzzy feeling inside your chest for two straight hours and lights your insides aglow to make you feel just as radiant as the characters. Damien Chazelle has found a way to bottle happiness and put it to film. You ache for Mia and Sebastian to remain a happy couple, but how the film chooses to leave the characters is so incredibly beautiful. The film’s ending feels so perfect as the most musically intense moments from The Artist come rushing back to you.
With the flickering of a few piano keys, La La Land is capable of making you experience a lifetime of wonderful memories with one simple melody. Visually gorgeous and deliciously colorful, La La Land is a romantically fueled, comically fun, and symphonically sublime treasure. You are guaranteed to leave with a smile on your face.