REVIEW: La La Land (2016)

Theatrical Release Poster - Summit Entertainment
Theatrical Release Poster – Summit Entertainment

The following is a review of La La Land – Directed by Damien Chazelle

They don’t make movies like they used to. Cinema is dead. – Odds are that you’ve encountered similar sentiments online or by the water cooler this past year. 2016 was, somewhat unfairly, called a bad year for movies, when it was just a bad year for summer blockbuster films. As is always the case with discovering new films, you have to know where to look.

It is all about finding the right talents, the right studios, or the premises that will pique your interest. Sometimes the right movie for you is one that reminds you of great classics but still isn’t blind to the nostalgia it’s feeding on. With a charismatic and charming cast, a brilliant director, and a genre that people are sometimes turned off by, La La Land is here at the right time to breathe new life into our love of movies. 

La La Land introduces you to two dreamers. Mia (played by Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling), who dreams of restoring jazz to its former glory. Both Mia and Sebastian are down on their luck, though. Sebastian is struggling with playing the uninspired setlist at his job, and Mia spends her days being rejected during auditions and working as a barista on the Warner Bros. studio backlot.

After running into each other time and time again, only to never be on the same wavelength, they finally officially meet at a party where the proud and serious musician Sebastian is playing in a 1980s pop cover band. At the end of the night, they finally connect and soon their passions and their dreams bring them closer together.

“It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and […] it’s very, very exciting!”

La La Land is a wonderfully charming – and confidently bittersweet – original musical with an eye on the past. There are so many little references that you can pick up on or appreciate as they’re revealed. It is a movie lover’s movie, but it isn’t unfriendly to people unfamiliar with – or turned off by – the musical genre. It is a comfortable blend of nostalgia, musical, romance, and traditional storytelling.

I went and saw the film with someone who isn’t really a big fan of the genre, and, I think, she was as enthralled with the experience of watching something as bubbly but honest as La La Land is as I was. And, see, that’s the thing. What I really love about La La Land is that it’s not just a traditional musical. It isn’t as full of wonder as some classic and memorable musicals. La La Land is honest in depicting a relationship between two ambitious dreamers in a big city. La La Land is honest about compromises and endings.

I’ll admit that I was a little bit worried about how I would feel about La La Land. I had to wait until February 2017 to see La La Land, as that was when it finally opened in Denmark. In fact, had it not been for a ‘sneak premiere’ in a movie theater near me, I probably wouldn’t have seen it until the week of the 89th Academy Awards.

But I knew I loved La La Land in the first scene. Or, really, I knew I loved what Chazelle was going for as soon as I saw the first shot. The music, the look, the movement — everything about the Another Day of Sun musical number just made me delighted. I was swept away by the film’s opening number. At the time of writing, I’m still not sure what musical number is my favorite, but seeing the Another Day of Sun scene for the first time was a spellbinding experience.

As much as I tried to hide from online discussions about the film, I did hear one criticism of the film: that the songs aren’t memorable. Now, had that been a problem for me, then I’m sure I wouldn’t have loved the film as much, but I loved pretty much every one of the songs. I’ve already mentioned how magical Another Day of Sun was to me. Emma Stone’s Audition performance manages to be completely captivating in a way that left my mouth wide open, and I could go on and on about City of Stars and Someone in the Crowd as well. These are all really catchy, and, for me, their influence on the film only added to the experience of watching it.

This is also a film that deserves a lot of praise for what is designed and happening behind the camera or in the editing room. The choreography is top-notch and Tom Cross – who also edited Whiplash – does a great job. I really enjoyed watching one scene, in particular, which reminded me of the finale of Whiplash. Here Sebastian is playing on the piano and Mia is dancing to the music. It’s just one of the really effective and harmonious scenes in the film. Two other magical and transportive elements are the gorgeous visuals and the moving musical film score. The score by Justin Hurwitz is of another time but timeless all the same — it is classical, romantic, and epic.

Which brings me to the actors. I’d like to add that I loved seeing J. K. Simmons in a very tiny role as a jazz hating restaurant owner, it felt like a nod to fans of Chazelle’s last film Whiplash. I was less pleased with John Legend’s character. His character’s subplot felt a tiny bit underdeveloped and is probably my only real issue with the film. But let’s get to our two leading performances.

Ryan Gosling had a great 2016. Although The Nice Guys didn’t make a lot of money, it was a critical success and it proved how talented he is as a comedic actor. With La La Land, Gosling continues to show how talented he is. To me, it almost felt like I was watching a classic actor, even though he clearly isn’t a perfect singer or dancer. He isn’t Gene Kelly, but, really, who is? They don’t make the stars like they used to. I was really impressed with him here, but much more so with Emma Stone. I’ve always really liked Emma Stone, but I don’t think I ever imagined seeing her in this kind of film. But she really does shine here, and her character is just so relatable.

La La Land made me feel alive, and it made me believe in the medium again, in part, thanks to the honest and bittersweet nature of the final act. It is the second Chazelle film in a row that has made me desperate for an encore. I, honestly, can’t wait to see it again. Perhaps it’s not the most unique film of 2016. It’s not the most original film of 2016 either. But make no mistake, this is my favorite film of 2016. Dare to dream.

10 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

4 thoughts on “REVIEW: La La Land (2016)

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