It's a breath of fresh air and a fantastic way to end 2016.
I don't usually have any regrets as a critic, but they occasionally can rear their head in unexpected ways. I may be a bit remorseful over some review scores that I give out, but the biggest regrets I have are when my end of the year lists come out. Not because I feel like I put a movie in a place that it didn't deserve, because I may see a movie later on that came out the year before, and instantly regret not having seen it, reviewed it, and praised it to death when it actually mattered. Case in point, Whiplash.
Whiplash was a 2014 drama made by Damien Chazelle that followed a drummer as he was trying to improve himself for his abusive instructor, played by J.K. Simmons. It won three Oscars that year and I would easily have ranked it as being one of the Top 3 movies of that year. It was that damned good. But I couldn't say or do anything about it, since my list was published over a month before I saw Whiplash. That's just the name of the game though. You can't see every movie that came out during a year, so you have to pick and choose the ones that you do want to see.
So when I heard that Damien Chazelle was making a new movie called La La Land, an original movie musical based off of the golden age of Hollywood cinema and Broadway musicals, I was immediately interested and hounded the release date of it. I wanted to see this movie desperately, and I went into it with expectations through the roof. This is my atonement for never talking about Whiplash, because La La Land is absolutely phenomenal from beginning to end.
La La Land is a movie centered around two aspiring artists in Los Angeles, Mia, played by Emma Stone, and Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling. Mia is trying to become a successful actress while Sebastian is trying to start his own jazz club where he can play the kind of music he loves. And what follows is pretty much a movie about their dreams, their encounters, and their relationship between one another.
On the surface, La La Land is an exceptionally simple movie. It wants to tell a story about aspiring artists that want to follow their dreams in a world that doesn't allow it. We've heard this story a million times before, but La La Land polishes that concept to a mirror shine. It's a movie that's universally relatable for how simple it is and uses that to wow the audience with beautiful visuals and some bright songs. This is a movie that never once takes the cynical route that brings the audience down. It has serious moments where reality does set in for them, but it's still heightened by a sense of optimism portrayed through the music.
And yeah, let's just talk about the songs in the movie. Can I just say how refreshing it is to hear an original score in a movie? I'm serious, actively pay attention to most movie musicals that come out nowadays and really take a listen to them. You have either Disney movies that do have originality to them, but they follow a very specific formula for how songs are structured. You'll have the "I Want" song, you'll have the song that's pushed in the trailers, you'll have the villain song, and the Act 2 "I've come so far on my journey song". Then you have jukebox musicals, which are fine by cater to a very specific audience, and the musical adaptations, which range from being alright to downright terrible. Every song in La La Land is new and always feels happy and toe tappingly fun.
Songs like "Another Day of Sun", "City of Stars", and "Another Night" are catchy as all hell, and I nearly wept at how great "Audition [The Fools Who Dream]" was. Yes, a man like me had to contain a few tears at how good that song was. La La Land may be classified as a musical, but if you're expecting 10-15 songs like most typical musicals, you'll be sadly disappointed. "City of Stars" while a good song, is repeated four times over the course of the movie, and at first it was fine, it slowly got on my nerves before realizing that it became a motif for Mia and Sebastian.
Here's the thing about La La Land; it exploits the idea of what heightened reality is. When you hear that phrase, you're probably wondering just what the hell that is. Is it like suspension of disbelief? Not really. Heightened reality means that everything becomes more like a dream. There are several extended sequences where all the characters do is dance in abstract locations, and then go back to their normal lives. These scenes are some of the best in the movie because so much is conveyed just through movement, music, and imagery. That's not to say that the script is poor, but when a musical tells a story through music instead of through dialogue, that's always a plus in my book.
Everything about La La Land is so perfectly paced to the point where I can't imagine any scene being removed from the movie. Every scene is vital in one way, shape or form. Even the scenes that aren't as strong as other ones. There's a sequence revolving around John Legend that doesn't gel with the rest of the movie, but it's made acceptable because of how it eventually aids in the development of Sebastian and Mia. That being said, he presence ends with a song that doesn't fit with the rest of the score and sounds more like a John Legend sound that somehow walked into a classic movie musical soundtrack.
Speaking of, hot damn do Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling own this movie. I was never the biggest Ryan Gosling fan, but he does one hell of a job here. I can't tell whether or not he's better here or in The Nice Guys, another one of the best movies of the year. And then you have Emma Stone, who dominates the movie towards the end. "Audition [The Fools Who Dream]" is Emma Stone's "I Dreamed a Dream", propelling her to the shortlist of Best Actress nominees for 2016. And you know what, she's not a half bad singer and dancer too. She sings all of her songs and does some fairly impressive tap work, which is always something that should be encouraged for actors in movie musicals.
I just realized where if I go at my normal pace of dedicating an entire paragraph to a specific aspect of the movie I'm going to be here all day. So let's just do some rapid fire points for funsies.
- The camera work here is fantastic and made me feel like I was on a pleasant roller coaster ride.
- The Violet and Indigo aesthetic is to die for. Remember when movies had color in them and didn't always try to be super realistic? La La Land isn't afraid to be bright and fun.
- Speaking of, La La Land is just an overall happy movie. I had a smile on my face the whole time!
- Whoever decided to insert ballet sequences into this movie is a goddamn genius.
- The retro Hollywood aesthetic is also to die for, appealing to old school cinema fans as well as fresh new audiences.
- There's so much jazz in this movie that it's almost to die for.
- I'm pretty sure that instead of this movie being a love letter to L.A., as most critics are calling it, it's more of a love letter to music than anything else. L.A. is there, but the main drama comes from the conflict that music creates. Yeah, Mia is an actress, but her issues are more about overcoming her insecurities and gaining confidence in her ability than decrying the acting business in Hollywood.
- Seriously, can be just give Damien Chazelle an Oscar already? Please?
When the credits rolled after the most justified ending I've seen since Kubo and the Two Strings, I just sat in the theatre listening to the music. I didn't want to leave the theatre. I didn't want my experience with La La Land to end. I wanted to sit and watch another viewing right away so I could appreciate all of the subtleties all over again and see plenty of new quirks that I didn't notice the first time. I want this movie on a damn loop so I can pore over it again, and again, and again. Is it the best movie of the year? I honestly don't know, but you can 100% guarantee that it'll be on my best films of 2016 list. I adored every last second with La La Land, even with the occasional flaw (seriously, John Legend is only here to promote a new single).
Go. See. La La Land.
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