CAUTION: There are some light spoilers below.
La La Land was the movie everyone was talking about, and maybe still are talking about in some form or another, when it tied for the most Academy Award nominations (fourteen!) with 1950’s All About Eve and 1997’s Titanic. From the first moment of the film, when we hear a piano plunking an irresistible calypso beat and deep, punctuating brass blasts, we know we are going to experience something totally new and timelessly special. A crowded California freeway is at a traffic standstill and the drivers break out into song, leap on top of cars and cartwheel in between them, cars honk in unison right before the final musical phrase, with the camera never cutting once until the song is complete. You cannot help but believe you are soaking up cinematic and musical bliss. What am I watching? And how did they do this?
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star as two talented dreamers hoping to make it big in Los Angeles, falling in love along the way. Gosling plays Sebastian, jazz pianist extraordinaire, and Stone plays Mia, aspiring actress. Directed by Damien Chazelle (who directed the Oscar-nominated Whiplash from 2014), this film has incredible visuals and gorgeous cinematography, dripping with bright colors and a realistic yet dignified Los Angeles in breathtaking scenery. You can tell Chazelle not only has a love for music, but also a love for dreams. With jaw-dropping choreography (especially in a sure to be favorite, “Someone in the Crowd”) and new editing and camera techniques that have never been seen in a musical before, the film pays touching and believable homage to the Golden Age of musicals and Hollywood. You reminisce and experience the love and appreciation for the standard Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films or Singin’ in the Rain (1952), but La La Land does not rely too heavily on nostalgia or musicals of the past, managing to hold its own as well as fuse its own ideas and techniques to help it pave its way to fit neatly right in the middle of the already glamorous and unneedy genre. Highlights of the film include of course its intro sequence, as well as a tapdancing song in the purple-lighted evening with a breathtaking view of Los Angeles, sunset at Griffith Park Observatory followed by a planetarium dance in the stars, and a reflective yet celebratory wrap up that might be one of the most visually stunning endings in recent memory, where the already charming and enveloping production design truly gets to "shine." So many musical film scores nowadays tend to generate a typical “blah,” response from the audience; not much has stood out lately with a few exceptions here and there. La La Land dumps this trend on its head, which is deeply satisfying. The new music by Justin Hurwitz is fresh and new, yet retains notes of familiarity that make the audience sense that they’ve heard these great, show-stopping tunes before. You don’t have to be a musical lover to appreciate this film. You might not be singing the words by heart when you leave the theatre, but the tunes to all of them will most definitely be stuck in your head, and in a good way. It reinvigorates the “modern” film musical, and that is no small accomplishment.
Despite the film often being described as a “modern day musical,” the film’s homage to the past really takes over most present-day elements. While the use of current technological devices such as cell phones is present, along with some specific songs that hint to this film taking place in 2016, there really is not much about it that strikes the viewer as “modern day.” This does not in any way undersell the film, in fact the film still feels timeless, and its tributary element of the past strengthens its audience size, but it is worth mentioning in response to a somewhat misguided synopsis. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are as expected terrific in their roles, and their Oscar nominations were somewhat warranted but not completely. Excluding Gosling and Stone’s singing and dancing, and one particular scene of Stone singing the mesmerizing “The Fools Who Dream,” it cannot help but feel that these actors are just playing themselves. Ryan Gosling feels like Ryan Gosling here, and Emma Stone feels like Emma Stone here. They offer strong performances as these actors can already prove to us, but nothing really grabs you in saying that the two leads approached these characters with something new or of their own creation. The film also tends to feel a little pretentious, in that it now and then has the need to remind you that what you are watching is unique and perfect, and the director knows it, as if in reply to a compliment on how great the film is, Damien Chazelle is saying, “I know.” While this desperation is not throughout the entire film, it is hard to say it is never present. However, if La La Land appears pretentious in certain scenes or with certain elements, it really has every right to be, at least a little bit, with what magical film end product is presented to us.
With just a trace of too much showing off, which may not detract every moviegoer, the film really does dazzle and leave you with thought-provoking ideas and outstanding visuals and believable characters, with a familiar story that manages to deliver plenty of twists and turns to make it stand out and come off as transcendent and truly alive. It seems like the average moviegoer who follows the Academy Awards sometimes thinks like they’ve missed something with the nominees for Best Picture, or at least the eventual winner. It seems as though the winner is just not quite as good as the award presented to it. The film has been built up and plugged so much that a backlash occurs, or at least the appreciation or interest is not quite matching the Academy’s point of view. La La Land happily refreshes this sometimes-typical opinion and legitimately lives up to its hype, and most deservedly earns its reputation and Best Picture nomination. La La Land was one of the best films of last year. There is not one word to describe it. Dazzling. Magical. Golden. Movies don’t get much better than this; it’s why we go to the movies. You will be enormously entertained and emotionally engaged and satisfied. If you haven't yet, see it. It may not have won Best Picture, but It will inspire and touch your heart.