December 02, 2016 by Shane O'Connor
It’s 2016 and I thought that musicals on the silver screen were dead and gone, coordinated songs and dances instead relegated to stages on Broadway and elsewhere.
But writer and director Damien Chazelle has done truly special in bringing back the big-budget movie musical, and he has done so in spectacular fashion.
With “La La Land,” starring the delightful pair of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, Chazelle and company have delivered one of the best films of the year while breathing fresh life into a forgotten film genre.
The plot of “La La Land” centers on struggling actress Mia (Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling), both of which are trying to pursue their dreams in Los Angeles.
After a huge opening musical number set on the jammed 110 Freeway, Stone in her Prius flips off Gosling as he passes her on the road. If that’s how romance starts then there is hope for me, as I get passed by countless drivers in my Prius on the Schuylkill Expressway.
After a few more chance encounters, Stone and Gosling fall for each other and together they try to further each other’s ambitions. It’s one of the most engaging and believable on-screen romances that I have seen in some time.
Chazelle, composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul created some great musical numbers, each of which provides a boost for the movie. You look forward to when the lights dim and all the sudden you are beset by a beautifully engaging song.
In fact, the third act of the movie seems to drag on (not rush) a bit because of the lack of singing and dancing, instead Chazelle focuses on developing Mia and Seb’s relationship.
For my money, “City of Stars” is the best tune in the movie. It might be just because I am a sucker for a melancholy, jazzy piano line but the song is used to great effect throughout the film.
Choreographer Mandy Moore (no, not the one who wants candy) also does a nice job of creating engaging dance routines that Gosling and Stone pull off very well.
The tap dancing in “A Lovely Night” harkens back to the tradition of Fred Astaire and Ginger Roberts. The scene is a heartfelt homage to an era often neglected in this day and age.
Chazelle made his name with one of my favorite movies of 2014, “Whiplash.” It told the story of a jazz drummer and his abusive teacher. Now Chazelle swaps out the jazz drums for jazz piano. Also gone are the slick camera shots and abrupt cuts of “Whiplash,” instead replaced with the CinemaScope, an anamorphic lens of a bygone era.
There are some really amazing shots that stick with you as you walk out of the theater: the inching of hands coming together in a dark movie theater, a charming surprise dinner that turns heated, two knowing smiles exchanged across a crowded bar. Chazelle is a director at the top of his game right now.
It’s a cliche to say, but the city of Los Angeles, La La Land itself, is a character in the film. We see fancy parties full of social climbers up in the hills. We see jazz clubs tucked away in less traveled corners of the city and movie theaters with marquees better suited to days passed by.
At times, the movie seems to reside solely in the purple and blue twilight that lingers after the famed golden hour nears its end. It’s a beautiful backdrop for the movie, one that really makes you feel like you are off in some fantasy land where musical numbers can pop up at any time and you wouldn’t bat an eye.
“La La Land” is a very special film. It breathes fresh life into an old genre with tremendous results. Gosling and Stone are a divine pairing on-screen. Chazelle’s screenplay creates something beautifully poetic, particularly in sacrificing your own hopes and dreams in order to further the hopes and dreams of the one you love.
Whether it is a wordless waltz through Griffith Observatory or full-on dance number on a crowded freeway, “La La Land” warms your heart while transporting you back to a simpler time, and it does so in a way that no other film in recent memory has. I cannot recommend this film highly enough and it should be a strong contender come awards season.