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La La Land Movie Review

La La Land (2016) movie poster La La Land

Theatrical Release: December 9, 2016 / Running Time: 128 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Writer/Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Ryan Gosling (Sebastian Wilder), Emma Stone (Mia Dolan), John Legend (Keith), J.K. Simmons (Bill), Rosemarie DeWitt (Laura), Finn Wittrock (Greg), Callie Hernandez (Lisa), Sonoya Mizuno (Caitlin), Jessica Rothe (Alexis), Tom Everett Scott (David), Josh Pence (Josh)

Songs: "Another Day of Sun", "Someone in the Crowd", "A Lovely Night", "City of Stars (Pier)", "Start a Fire", "City of Stars", "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)", "City of Stars (Humming)"

Two years ago, Damien Chazelle made essentially his feature directing debut on Whiplash. One of the very best films of 2014, it was an obvious passion project, made for cheap independently and treated to near-universal acclaim as well as major Academy Award recognition.
That would appear to be a hard act to follow, and his next credit, contributing to the script for this year 10 Cloverfield Lane did not exactly inspire hope. But Chazelle has avoided the sophomore slump and has made a grand film that is sure to be 2016's most decorated and, until the backlash of acknowledgement strikes, one of its most beloved too.

La La Land is the ambitious work of someone at the top of their game. This original musical romance is a love song to 1950s musicals, the city of Los Angeles, jazz, and dreamers. Opening with an arresting sequence in which a highway traffic jam turns into one of the most lively and colorful song and dance numbers the screen has ever seen, the film comes to center on two such dreamers. Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) of Boulder City, Nevada is an aspiring actress. She experiences the deflating pain of rejection and the staggering odds against her by auditioning for film and television roles on a regular basis. She makes ends meet living in an apartment full of like-aged hopefuls and by working as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot.

When projection of "Rebel Without a Cause" breaks down at the Rialto, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) hit the Griffiths Observatory to finish the movie themselves.

She first crosses paths with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in that opening traffic jam, where a honked horn is met with a middle finger. He is a jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own club. For now, though, he is reduced to playing Christmas standards at a restaurant where no one notices or appreciates him. His attempt to incorporate an original tune is not quite the tempo of the owner (Whiplash Oscar winner J.K. Simmons) and gets him fired on Christmas Eve.

After a painful brush-off, Mia and Seb again cross paths in the spring at a pool party where Seb is playing keytar and keyboard for an '80s tribute band. They exchange some friendly barbs and at crossing paths at another party, they begin to warm to each other, as they share a song and dance and some of their dreams. Soon, they are in a relationship and one that feels right. But in the pursuit of their respective dreams, the two experience further disappointment and then compromise, when Seb puts his club plans on hold for the steady paycheck that comes with playing in the popular band of a colleague (John Legend) he doesn't really like or respect.

La La Land does not give us the storybook romance that a '50s musical might have. In Whiplash, Chazelle showed us how seriously he takes chasing dreams at the expense of other relationships and pursuits. He imbues both leads here with similar determination and priorities you can question. That makes this more complex and mature than the tidy, easily resolved give-and-takes of most Hollywood romcoms. And, of course, La La Land proves to be more than just a romance film, investing deeply in a study of two characters whose separate passions may take them on divergent roads regardless of the sparks they generate.

Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) gotta dance!

While I first saw this three full months before the Oscar ceremony will be held, I was and remain certain that La La Land will dominate the Academy Awards. It is probably easier to name the categories this will not compete in: supporting actor and actress, sound editing, visual effects, and makeup and hairstyling. In every other category in which it is eligible, this film seems likely to receive a nomination and in many cases win, deservedly so. This is a feast for the senses, a brilliant showcase of color, music, production design, and character.

Both Gosling and Stone are certain to pick up their second acting nominations and each has a legitimate shot at winning the Oscars' lead categories. I actually narrowly prefer Gosling's turn in the excellent The Nice Guys, but what a year it's been for him between those two movies. In this, their third movie playing a couple, the two have enough chemistry to be able to compare them to Hollywood power couples of yore without amounting to sacrilege.

The content and irresistibility of La La Land make it the clear favorite to take the industry's top prize. Hollywood loves to hold a mirror up to itself, as referential recent Best Picture winners The Artist, Argo, and Birdman have shown. La La Land won't win just because it emulates classic musicals or pays homage to the likes of Ingrid Bergman and Rebel Without a Cause. But that appreciation for cinema is part of a more widespread and contagious passion the film holds for art and artists. Those who have experienced rejection in trying to break through will relate to Mia's plight. Those who have seen their preferred form, from westerns to hand-drawn animation, grow obsolete can sympathize with Seb's situation. And even those with no experience in creative capacity can still enjoy the film simply on the basis of its compelling narrative, charismatic protagonists, and downright arresting finale.

Destined to win over audiences just as much as critics, La La Land seems to have a clear path to all the glory imaginable to a film and it's just about impossible to conceive any reason why Chazelle and company do not deserve such a reception. This is not a movie that will change the industry's tentpole-driven practices or revive a faded genre. It's just one of those rare lightning in a bottle experiences where the stars seem to align and talented people exceed even the best work they've done before.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Manchester by the Sea Nocturnal Animals Loving Moonlight Moana Rules Don't Apply Allied
Gosling & Stone: Crazy, Stupid, Love. Gangster Squad
Ryan Gosling: The Nice Guys Blue Valentine The Big Short Drive The Ides of March
Emma Stone: Magic in the Moonlight Birdman Easy A The Help Ghosts of Girlfriends Past
John Legend: A Colbert Christmas
Musicals: The Last Five Years Across the Universe Into the Woods Nine Enchanted Begin Again

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Reviewed December 16, 2016.



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