“Here’s to the ones who dream. Foolish as they may seem”
“They don’t make them like they used to”: it’s been the cry of our parents and their parents yearning for the days of the golden age of Hollywood and their musicals. Gene Kelly singin’ in the rain, the dynamic duo of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire and everything in between. In 2016, Hollywood was more than done with original musicals. They turned their back on the genre. Luckily for us, Hollywood didn’t account for the old soul that is Damien Chazelle.
Wowing us in 2014 with Whiplash, Chazelle is back with another film about following dreams, but where Whiplash took a more bleak angle on this idea, his new film, La La Land, is a celebration of dreams. A lightning bolt of joy and wonder that serves as a love letter to old school musicals. Filling each frame with only the brightest of colors and choreography that can only be described as show stopping, Chazelle has crafted a masterpiece. For just one movie, they did make them like they used to.
The film begins with a one shot sequence I dare not spoil here that immediately puts you in this world. The tone is set right off the bat as a glitzy, flashy musical that impresses on every level. Thinking about what Chazelle and crew had to do on a technical level to achieve some of these song and dance numbers makes me want to give this movie the Oscar right on the spot. The amount of rehearsing needed and the precise timing that has to be accomplished makes for perfectly executed numbers. You feel that passion and commitment every time they break out into dance. It’s such a singular vision Chazelle pulls off here that balances fantasy and reality to results that soar. It’s a film knee deep in the lure of old school musicals and fully committed to this old chestnut of a genre. From the circular wipes to end scenes to the use of old Cinemascope lenses from the 50s, the film doesn’t skimp on getting a nostalgic aesthetic. The music from Justin Hurwitz is full of life and adds to this aesthetic. Beautiful pianos get us into the mind of Ryan Gosling’s character, a Jazz purist with immense passion towards the craft. Cheerful, infectious melodies and songs fit perfectly in scenes on the LA highway or Emma Stone and her girls getting ready for a party
Additionally, La La Land doesn’t come to life without Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling who are game for anything. Singing and dancing their hearts out with the heart swooning chemistry that is unmatched in Hollywood today. Stone taps into a place of vulnerability as an actress putting herself out there, but always getting rejected. She’s given a one shot scene near the end of the film that is mesmerizing (I’ll refer to it as the “audition scene”). Chazelle fills the movie with one takes to see the natural progression of performances in every scene. Later on, a scene involving a fight between Gosling and Stone brings out the best in these two and their performances. Chazelle uses the script and camera to makes these two leads stand out as much as possible and wholeheartedly works with the master talent of the duo. They inhabit this world flawlessly and feel like the modern day counterpart to Rogers and Astaire back in the 40s.
Equally, Cinematographer Linus Sandgren gives us a visual experience like none other. Every single shot in this two hour movie will have colors that just pop. Every choice in the color palette feels meticulously planned out to the tee. Similarly, the lighting work here is nothing short of genius with a scene starting in a public space before everything just fades away and it’s a single spotlight on the characters. The whole world doesn’t matter when it’s Stone acting or Gosling playing piano. We truly feel the passion these two have to point of seeing them blocking everything else out. Sandgren also has the camera glide so effortlessly in the musical numbers. Much like the numbers, these camera movements feel like a perfectly timed dance. This is a visual marvel shot on 35mm Cinemascope in a wider ratio than most films. A cinematography masterpiece with a style all its own.
As an almost therapeutic exercise for Chazelle, who also wrote the film, his interpretation of dreams is a complex one. He encourages following your dreams, but it can come at a cost. Sometimes following your dreams can’t pay the bills, but getting something steady can make you miserable. Through Mia and Sebastian (Stone and Gosling respectively), we see both sides of this. This message feels even more real in the backdrop of the dream crushing city of Los Angeles. There’s no telling if you’ll ever get close to the finish line in LA and if it’s just a series of embarrassments that goes nowhere. We’re getting a story about those daring dreamers in the city that tries to break them. In that sense, it’s a universal story that anyone with dreams can relate to. The ending wraps up these concepts in a logical way with a sequence that’ll be one for the ages.
At the end of the day, if you can go along with the campiness and unadulterated elation that comes with the territory of musicals, La La Land is for you. It works as a perfect sendup to old school musicals, while also being fresh and new. It’s tap into nostalgia, but doesn’t use it as a crutch. Dazzling in its ambition, La La Land is an all timer that left me with the biggest smile I’ve ever had in the theater. It’s not just a film, it’s a great experience with music that’s pretty tough to get out of your head. I’ve never been more satisfied walking out of the cinema in my entire life. Out of all the films in 2016, La La Land shines the brightest.