La La Land is written and directed by Damien Chazelle and stars Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, and John Legend.
When first going into 2014’s Whiplash, I never expected then-unknown writer/director Damien Chazelle to astonish and thrill me in any of the ways he did. Defying all odds, Chazelle utilized his storytelling and characters to deliver an intensely hard-hitting drama that would eventually become my favorite film of that year. Looking to once again find the same magic and musical bravado that made Whiplash such a hit, Chazelle now brings us La La Land, a cinematic love-letter to musicals and Hollywood of old, while simultaneously its own mini-revolution on the traditional structure of modern romance films. This film received a lot of buzz in its theatrical run and was eventually nominated for (and won) numerous Academy Awards. The question one must ask upon rewatching this film after all the chaos is: “Does this film actually live up to any of its Oscar hype?”
Yes indeed it does, because this film is a joyous delight.
What really stood out to me upon any of my numerous viewings of this film is the tremendous amount of love and energy put into La La Land’s filmmaking. Not a single shot in this entire film feels wasted or out of place, but rather is given a vast amount of care, and are all used as a means to an end with respect to the narrative, an attribute very rarely found in modern cinema. The transitions between scenes and shots are masterful, and at least to me seemed very familiar to the ones in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim v.s The World (highest of honors right there). These elements all gleefully combine with incredibly precise and sharp editing, sound mixing, practical effects, and set design (just to name a few). The amount of effort put into every facet of La La Land’s filmmaking shows a true pride and respect for cinema and its history, something to be commended on the part of Chazelle. Seriously. This film is shot in CinemaScope for crying out loud. Doesn’t get any more vintage than that.
While being a cinematic and technical marvel, the film also soars to astounding heights in its story and characters. The film challenges the traditional sappy romance film structure with a fresh and thought-provoking ending, and is carried by two leads who are just so naturally likable that it’s a little silly. Gosling and Stone shine in their roles, commanding the presence of every scene they’re in through both their comedic and dramatic abilities. Their starry-eyed dream-chaser characters within Mia and Sebastian were far and beyond some of the most endearing film characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of being invested in, which only made this film’s ending so much greater than it already was (and that’s coming from someone who isn’t even that big into musicals). The supporting cast, while not as prominent or well-acted as Gosling or Stone, are all perfect fits into their roles. However, following his Earth-shattering performance in Whiplash, I personally would’ve liked to see J.K. Simmons utilized more than the few minutes of screen time he was given. But in the grand scheme of things, I do suppose that’s just a nitpick, as his character still fits the film’s tone and pacing wonderfully. But on the subject of the film’s pacing, we now meander to where my only real problem with the film lies. The pacing around the latter half of the second act does admittedly drag for quite a bit, especially in sequences involving John Legend’s jazz band. While this portion of the film is in no way terrible or even bad, it just felt like a really awkward change of rhythm (pun very much intended) amidst what is mostly an incredibly paced film. And finally, to add the cherry on top of all that La La Land ultimately does right, what’s a musical without its soundtrack?
This film’s soundtrack is infectiously catchy. The musical arrangements and composition from composer Justin Hurwitz are just as full of energy and care as the film itself, and the songs have all infested my brain for the longest time now. The music is even more of a joy to see in the film amidst beautiful sets and wonderful choreography (again, coming from a guy who’s not crazy about musicals).
As someone who originally thought I wouldn’t like La La Land amidst the array of filmgoers who sung (twice the puns!) its praises, especially around Oscar season, I have to say that Chazelle has once again proved my presuppositions wrong and has now twice knocked it out of the park. This film is a musical bottle of sunshine, filled to the brim with rich and loving filmmaking, a convention-challenging and innovative romantic narrative, and characters any filmgoer can root for in the end. La La Land is truly something wonderful, and gets an A.