La La Land: An Enchanting Year in the Sun

HERE’S TO THE FOOLS WHO DREAM.

Remember that opening scene from Manhattan (1979)? It’s a montage of different New York City images beautifully captured in black and white by cinematographer Gordon Willis, set to George Gershwin’s ”Rhapsody in Blue” as it builds in intensity to an impressive display of fireworks. It is an unforgettable tribute to that city. There has been many love letters to Los Angeles as well, even though a lot of people have also taken pleasure in knocking it. Not Damien Chazelle though. The director likes L.A.

In an interview with The New York Times, he talked about how you have to put in an effort to explore the city because it has a tendency to ignore its own history. Turns out there are many of us who are willing to go along with him on that journey.

Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) works as a barista on the Warner studio lot while also trying to get hired as an actress. She has an uncomfortable encounter on an L.A. highway with Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who dreams of starting his own club, one that doesn’t try to reinvent jazz for bored audiences. Mia meets Sebastian again at a restaurant where he’s the pianist, but he gets himself fired and simply blows her off. Some time later, Mia sees Sebastian very reluctantly perform in a 1980s cover band at a party and she confronts him. Over several dates, they get to know each other’s dreams, but the possibilities that eventually open up for them become a test…

A return to jazz
Anyone who saw Chazelle’s last movie, Whiplash (2014), shouldn’t be surprised to learn that this one also treats jazz like a special music genre worthy of admiration like no other. On the one hand, that passion is wonderful and part of the film’s immense charm. On the other hand, Gosling’s character is at times an insufferable snob whose attitude threatens to undermine the sentiments the filmmakers are trying to create.

But it’s as if Chazelle is aware of what might be perceived after these two films as his own personal snobbery, because even the scenes of Sebastian ”selling out” are still very engaging for the rest of us, either fun in a dorky way (when Mia spots Sebastian at that 1980s party) or featuring good music even if it isn’t what Sebastian worships. We’re supposed to ”dislike” a song that John Legend performs (with Sebastian on keyboard), but it’s not really possible. This is largely a traditional musical, with original songs, and colorful choreography and set design, but Chazelle wanted to take all the hallmarks of that genre and fuse them with the modern world. That means we get a tribute to the old Hollywood, an idealized Los Angeles (as in that riveting opening scene where everybody starts dancing on the highway) and scenes of pure imagination – but we’re also always reminded of modern times.

That means a nod to Rebel Without a Cause (1955), an imaginative and in every way uplifting, romantic visit to the Griffith Observatory as seen in that movie – but also another musical performance that’s abruptly interrupted by a familiar ringtone. The story takes a different turn than expected from old musicals, but still cleverly offers a happier alternative in the shape of a fantasy near the end, which brings a bittersweet touch to a film that is otherwise joyously entertaining. 

Gosling and Stone are perfectly matched and handle their musical challenges with aplomb. But above all, this is a technical triumph, including cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s lush vintage California look, Tom Cross’s rhythmic editing, Justin Hurwitz’s delightful song score and Chazelle’s steady hand at the helm. The story may be simple, but the movie is a complex achievement.

La La Land 2016-U.S. 128 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Fred Berger, Gary Gilbert, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Cinematography: Linus Sandgren. Editing: Tom Cross. Music: Justin Hurwitz. Songs: ”Another Day of Sun”, ”City of Stars”, ”Audition” (Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul), ”Start a Fire” (John Legend, Marius De Vries, Angelique Cinelu, Justin Hurwitz). Production Design: David Wasco. Costume Design: Mary Zophres. Cast: Ryan Gosling (Sebastian Wilder), Emma Stone (Mia Dolan), John Legend (Keith), Rosemarie DeWitt, Finn Wittrock, Jessica Rothe… J.K. Simmons.

Trivia: Miles Teller and Emma Watson were allegedly considered for the leads.

Quote: “That’s L.A. – they worship everything and they value nothing.” (Gosling)

Oscars: Best Director, Actress (Stone), Cinematography, Original Score, Original Song (”City of Stars”), Production Design. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Director, Actor (Gosling), Actress (Stone), Screenplay, Original Score, Original Song (”City of Stars”). BAFTA: Best Film, Direction, Actress (Stone), Cinematography, Original Music.

Last word: “At the end of the day, I wanted everything to remain really human in the movie. Never to let the numbers become purely technical execution of steps; it’s one thing that I think [1950s musicals] were really good at, and it’s partly why I wanted actors and not professional dancers or singers. I wanted them to approach those things as actors, as everything coming from the character and the idiosyncrasies of the character; never favouring technique over character or story.” (Chazelle, The Independent)

 

IMDb

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