By Murphy Kenefick, Columnist
The first shot of “La La Land” is a knockout. A massive assembly of singers, dancers, musicians and actors emerge from unmoving cars during a traffic jam against a sun-blasted Los Angeles sky, singing their hearts out about what they left behind to come pursue their dreams. Each face shines with pure, unadulterated optimism, clothed in bold, primary colors; the promise of another day of sun dismissing any nagging fears of failure. This uninterrupted shot of musical glee is not only an unbelievable feat of directing, but also a preview of everything that is to come: the dreamers are going to take over with romantic song and dance in a flash of color by paying homage to classic musicals, all the while adding a modern twist.
Our leads Mia and Sebastian (played exquisitely by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling), are an actress and jazz musician, respectively, with big hopes and a lot of passion, but not without the practical fear of falling on their faces. Mia goes to endless auditions and Sebastian plays piano wherever he can. Neither of them are truly content, but they’re happy to be trying, because at least they’re doing what they love. It’s this mutual passion of the arts that brings them together, a love that clearly shines through writer/director Damien Chazelle’s script. Chazelle’s enthusiasm for jazz and movies is so abundant throughout that it will make anyone who shares these interests giddy.Even if you don’t share them, and you’re really not a fan of musicals (neither am I), never fear: it’s still an incredibly engaging story about how to make yourself work in the world, which is something everyone should be able to get on board with.
Without giving away too much, much of the beauty of this film is in the details and the moments. Naturally, it’s in the grand scale of its message and visual tone, but it’s also in the facial expressions, costume choices and the way that the music quietly weaves through the action. It would probably require repeat viewings to pick up on some of these things, but rest assured, this film is more than just a silly musical. In fact, as it progresses, the number of songs declines while the dramatic tension and empathy for the characters increase. This attention to detail is what makes “La La Land” so memorable. Certain shots and musical cues will be imprinted in my memory for good.
Because of all these “below the line” accomplishments, “La La Land” is poised to get nominated for and win several Academy Awards. For a movie about pursuing dreams of acting and writing in Los Angeles, it’s not surprising that it will receive a lot of love. However, I’ve heard it referred to as “Oscar bait,” a film made specifically for the Oscars for the sole purpose of winning awards. However, knowing that Chazelle has been writing this movie since his days in college with his roommate (Justin Hurwitz, who wrote the music), I find it hard to believe that this is anything other than a passion project. This delayed backlash often occurs to films that receive accolades later in the season; “Boyhood,” “Birdman” and “Spotlight” are some recent examples. Since those are remarkable films, and the disease of retroactive negativity always seems to attack at this time of year, I felt the need to defend this innocent, joyous little picture.
It gives me great pleasure to, for the first time while writing for this paper, give a movie a perfect score. Now, I am biased because of my love for film, California and Emma Stone, but even putting all that aside, “La La Land” works as a triumphant romance about dreamers. It’s full of hope and promise, but also crippling reality. These characters experience all of these themes at their fullest, from bright colors and ecstatic song to bleak solitude and shameful embarrassment. They all have to decide what to give up, where to compromise and how to express what means the most to them. It all coalesces together with such intention and passion that I never wanted the film to end. But once that mesmerizing finale finishes and you’re left with that huge “THE END” title card, I can guarantee that you’ll be glad that you went to the movies.
BONUS POINTS: JK Simmons essentially playing his character from “Whiplash”
NEGATIVE POINTS: One scene of bad dubbing.
5 of 5 Stars