Ever see the kind of movie that just makes you skip down the street, spin around and jump - or, at least, want to? If you manage to catch “La La Land” on the big screen, I can very well guarantee you will find it in yourself to react thusly. While I imagine “Star Wars” and Marvel fans must be screaming with such elation nowadays, they’re about to be drowned out by audiences exiting Damien Chazelle’s new jazz musical (of all the genres that could generate such euphoria out of modern viewers). I have reason to be far more ecstatic than anyone else I know who has had the distinct pleasure to see “La La Land,” because not only do I feel like it was crafted specifically for someone like me (a former wannabe actor who took up piano for a few years), I also believe that its timing could not be any more meaningful to where I currently am in my life. Normally, I leave personal attachments to films I review for the sake of clear-eyed writing, but since Chazelle’s riveting film so charmingly urges you to follow your heart’s desire, I am going to shamelessly interject myself into this review quite a bit.
Where to begin? (Well, the beginning, I suppose.) “La La Land” opens with one of the most staggering long takes in recent cinema, but unlike others, this one is staggering because of what it is rather than how it is. Cars honk in an ungodly amount of L.A. traffic, but these frustrating sounds give way to a joyous ensemble song-and-dance number called “Another Day of Sun.” The drivers bust out of their vehicles to twirl and tap their way up and down the crowded road, eager for what the day holds in store. We know we’re about to see two starry-eyed lovers hustle their way towards their respective dreams, but Chazelle (who made a splash in 2014 with “Whiplash”) is too smart to open on them immediately, composing a thrilling overture that reminds us that the journeys of the protagonists are not exclusive, but shared. I’ve had days where I have felt just as stuck as the drivers, but I’ve also had a like-minded optimism about these days, so to see Chazelle inject the most mundane of everyday situations with such energy is nothing short of amazing.
In this jam, we meet Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), a starving actress making whatever living she can as a barista on the Warner Bros studio lot. She auditions like its her job, but always finds herself acting for a wall as every casting director she meets seems glued to their phones. She questions if she will ever make it, something that my high school self would empathize with. We also meet Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), a pianist who lives and breathes classical jazz the way I do with movies, but is forced to play the contemporary hits at restaurants and parties so that he may keep a roof over his head. Their first exchange is a hostile one, but if you’ve ever seen something with or inspired by the likes of Astaire and Rogers, you know that it’s only a matter of time before these two dreamers to flirt, sing and dance their way into each others arms.
Back in the day, particularly the 30s and 40s, musicals were the spectacle that comic book films are today, yet they touched on emotions so much purer than anything featuring men in capes and tights could hope to elicit. Chazelle understands the core appeal of the genre better than any film adaptation of a Broadway musical that I have seen in the past few years; that song, dance and everything around it are an extension of character, and that some emotions require some razzle-dazzle to be expressed in full. Yeah I know this has been attempted before many times, but not like this. When he can, Chazelle goes big, but not without sacrificing the groundedness in which he sets the picture. Even the smaller numbers, such as Mia and Sebastian tap dancing by a lamppost under the evening sky (“A Lovely Night”), or Sebastian whistling after an encounter with Mia (“City of Stars”), feel huge. Hats off to composer Justin Hurwitz (Chazelle’s Harvard roommate) for such a ravishing soundtrack, and to Mandy Moore for the exquisite choreography.
The pair become inseparable, that is until reality sets in. Eventually, Sebastian accepts a financially promising offer from high school pal Keith (John Legend), the frontman of a successful band. As he makes his way up, Mia continues to hit dead ends with her auditions, and friction soon develops between the two. Love has guided them so far, but of course, it cannot solve every problem. The resulting drama is bittersweet, but never downbeat, and both Stone and Gosling know exactly how to handle it. Gosling, an actor as versatile as they come (look at “Drive,” “Blue Valentine” and “The Nice Guys”), is sensational, becoming a quadruple threat - that is to say, a triple threat that can play piano - right before our eyes. However, the film is Stone’s from start to finish. Her natural spunk shines through as always, but this time, Stone is given a plethora of material to sink her teeth into, and the resulting performance is lustrous (to say the least).
As I edge closer and closer to my college graduation, a growing sense of uncertainty for my future haunts me. What exactly comes next? How do I, a film lover with a knack for acting and a few other artistic pursuits, go about the rest of my days? I guess I should be so lucky that I actually have something of a life to look forward to, but it’s not always comforting to wonder what awaits me. But things are looking up; I am in the throes of a new relationship, other bright new faces have lit up my days of late, and some promising opportunities have come my way. It’s as if the constellations have aligned, and now here comes “La La Land,” a sumptuous feast for the eyes and the heart that has reminded me that maybe, just maybe, everything will continue to be okay as long as dreams are chased and life is shared with others.