“La La Land” Movie Review


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     Writer/director Damien Chazelle announced his arrival as the next young virtuoso filmmaker with his 2014 awards darling and indie hit “Whiplash”, a film centered around jazz music which explored the theme of obsession and how far people will go to succeed from the point of view of both student and teacher.  “Whiplash” took home three Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor, and allowed Chazelle to bring to life another long gestating film project that may see him win it all when the Academy Awards are presented early next year.  That film is “La La Land”, a musical love letter to not only jazz, but also to the many artists, actors, and performers throughout Hollywood who dream big as they struggle to make it within the ultra competitive entertainment industry landscape.  From the opening musical number to the last, “La La Land” is a beautiful and captivating film, featuring awards worthy performances from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who both turn in some of the best work of their respective careers.

     Mia (Emma Stone) works at a coffee shop located within the Warner Brothers backlot and is used to seeing high profile celebrities stop by on their way to the many film productions underway throughout the studio.  She dreams of being a famous actress herself, as we tag along to the various casting calls and auditions she attends, while learning of the sometimes cold and harsh realities actors experience while trying to land a coveted role.  Mia appears happy on the outside, but the constant struggle is clearly wearing on her. 

     Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is no doubt dealing with the same kind of struggle.  As a jazz pianist, he remains dedicated to the roots of the famed musical genre, but also knows it is a dying art, giving way to the more trendy sounds preferred by younger musicians and audiences.  He’s barely making it financially, and takes gigs playing Christmas music at local restaurants in order to get by.  But Sebastian’s real dream is to someday own a jazz club and preserve the music he has dedicated his life to.  Mia and Sebastian are dreamers, and neither of them will allow anyone to stop them from achieving those dreams, even though both find themselves running into insurmountable obstacles each and every day.  That is until they meet each other for the first time.

     On a night Sebastian loses a gig after ignoring his boss’s order to play only what he has been instructed, Mia walks through the door of the restaurant after hearing the alluring sounds of Sebastian’s piano from outside.  She’s come at the wrong moment though, as Sebastian storms away, not realizing Mia was set to compliment the song he was playing.  But fortunately for both of them, they meet again at a party that has enlisted an 80s revival band which Sebastian belongs to as well.  This scene in particular, establishes both the likability of both characters, but also creates an obvious chemistry between them as well.  Each quality is important since Chazelle immediately stages a music and dance number featuring the duo that has a major impact on their relationship moving forward.  It’s not long before these two dreamers fall in love, but there are pitfalls within their budding relationship that have the  potential to cause problems down the road.  If only they could have seen them coming.

     Chazelle presents both Sebastian and Mia as being supremely talented artists who are clearly on the cusp of breaking through, but are not exactly there yet.  Perhaps their relationship functions for both of them as a safe place to vent about the continual push back each gets as they strive to take the next step.  Sebastian schools Mia in the intricacies of jazz, going as far as taking a woman who claims to not like jazz music to an authentic club and point out the many nuances that make the music influential and one of a kind.  Conversely, Mia shares her longing to become a playwright and star in her own theater show.  It’s not long before opportunities begin to present themselves for both of them, as Sebastian is offered a spot in an up and coming modern jazz band by a friend of his named Keith (John Legend), and Mia is able to bring her dream of writing and starring in her own play to fruition.  But these successes begin to take their toll on the relationship, and it becomes clear neither is willing to sacrifice their dreams in order to stay together.  

     At its core, “La La Land” is a love story.  We feel the love between Sebastian and Mia, but we also know the story is about Chazelle’s love for the arts, music, theater, and perhaps most of all, Los Angeles.  From the very first scene, the film is beautifully photographed, taking full advantage of the various sites throughout the town, as Sebastian and Mia sing and dance their way through each act.  The music, featuring original songs and a standout score by Justin Hurwitz, create an emotional resonance between the characters, the settings, and the audience that brings a heightened sense of feeling to the story and ensures the conclusion will bring tears to the eyes of anyone who watches.  Whether it be the warm and endearing “City of Stars” or Emma Stone’s wonderful performance of “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, you’re talking about songs which function as crucial elements to the story, rather than what sometimes feels like sideshow spectacle or fluff in some musicals.  

     “Audition”, in particular, carries an emotional punch that really hit me given its placement in the third act of the film and the importance of the decisions Mia is faced with at that moment. As she sings the chorus, “Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem.  Here’s to the hearts that ache.  Here’s to the mess we make.”, the application of the words to your own life becomes inevitable, as you begin to realize “La La Land” is about all of us.  About the mistakes we’ve all made at some point.  About the struggles we’ve all had.  But most importantly, how we continue to dream, no matter what, letting our hearts be our guide. GRADE: A  ❤️