"You change your dreams and then you grow up."
La La Land is the kind of modern musical people who tend to hate musicals will likely still enjoy. Whiplash filmmaker Damien Chazelle takes Old Hollywood troupes of breaking into song, dance numbers, jazz standards, glitz and glamour to make a very self-conscious and contemporary Los Angeles story of romance and creative expression. It bursts with pure cinematic magic and spectacle in every frame using seamless filmmaking tricks to get across its uncynical musical themes and ode to dreamers. Chazelle executes his ambitious vision in an endearingly unpolished yet technically impressive fashion.
The dynamic pairing of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as dreamers Sebastian and Mia, a struggling jazz pianist and aspiring actress, is entirely compelling as the two meet cute, bicker, and fall madly in love ever so charmingly. Gosling plays up his recent trend of jerk-ish but charming roles as Stone blows us away with a tour de force performance switching back and between comedy and tragedy with ease.
There's an emotional earnestness that justifies the surrealist musical moments and all their candour as the film overflows with affection from the wonderful music by composer Justin Hurwitz. While essentially a two-hander of a film, small supporting performances from Rosemarie DeWitt as Seb's loving sister to J.K. Simmons as a cranky club owner and John Legend, humorously playing the guitar, as Seb's combative bandmate make this surreal version of L.A. feel so lived in and naturalistic despite the far off flights of fantasy.
Chazelle's ambition and execution of various musical dance sequences—one set on a L.A. freeway, no less—using long takes and sumptuous Hollywood imagery are wondrous. While the mid-section drags into conventional romantic comedy territory with artificial obstacles and misunderstandings, the ending is so boldly moving and thoroughly astonishing, it virtually redeems all. Chazelle has so much talent he's able to retroactively fix problems in his films as they move along and end them in spectacular fashion.
What La La Land captures so beautifully is what could have been. It explores love's possibilities and the power to lift others up in relationships. The story is both aspirational and bittersweet as it heartbreakingly makes the case for creative artistry and dreamers with a healthy dose of reality and drama all set to jazzy dance music. Chazelle's ongoing indulgence and obsession with art and life continues with another joyous musical film anchored by glorious performances.
La La Land screened as the opening film of the 2016 Whistler Film Festival.
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