This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Justin Willis’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Of all the jazz clubs in all the towns in all the worlds, she walks into mine.
You can feel the oozing influence that beloved classics had on Chazelle and Hurwitz. Influence is a powerful thing, often ending up being cheap mimicry or homages instead of the intended revolutionary recreation. This is addressed rather clearly from within the film when John Legend rather patently asks Gosling's character how he plans on being a revolutionary, if he's so stuck in jazz traditions. While the obvious influence of Gene Kelly is smeared all over the dancing, nothing about La La Land plays like a standard homage to old movies or musicals.
La La Land is an instant classic. It's already dated, distinctly 2016. That isn't a knock in any way. My favorite New Hollywood films always transport me back to a distant time period and for one of the reasons La La Land is such a soaring success in my eyes is that it utilizes everything that's popular in today's filmmaking. From the opening, flashy tracking shot to the occasional burst of Whiplash's jazz editing. The casting of hip stars and the modern, in-house music reminiscent of (yet not as annoying and obvious as) the recent reincarnation of Les Miserables also plays into this current feel. And finally, the coffee shop, phones, and superstar John Legend's very inclusion all play into this theme.
From the opening tracking shot, Chazelle lets the audience know he doesn't care what they think, he has the power and he's going to do whatever the hell he wants. Watching a true director's vision through-and-through is a fascinating feeling, one that I truly believe you experience with this movie. Each scene, each frame burst with color, action, and excitement. When the movie cuts to a tap-dancing number, it isn't a cheap imitation of Singing in the Rain, it's properly set up through the dialogue and creatively played out, a modern updating of older films. Chazelle may be a director that wishes he was making films in the classical period, he has the common sense to still make films that appeal to today's sensibilities. The opening number has a modern tracking shot. The planetarium scene goes beyond anything possible in the 40s and 50s.
I went into La La Land with high expectations. What those expectations were, I cannot say. I thought there would be more music, but instead I got a much more visual, dancing filled movie, which I was more than ok with. I was not expecting to experience the most visually appealing film of 2016. The skill behind the camera was remarkable. The script blew me away, especially how funny the film could be. Sure, the movie has its serious moments, but I couldn't believe the comedic timing during the earlier portions of the movie. The opening numbers are obviously the best and most fun songs of the film, but like a real relationship, as we get deeper into the characters, the frantic fun disappears a bit, being replaced with a more grounded two acts and ending with the films most emotional song, The Fools Who Dream, which had me in tears.
While Ryan's review got me thinking of comparisons between this film and Arrival, I'd like to propose a counter-comparison film, the Humphrey Bogart classic Casablanca. Throughout La La Land, the environment of old Hollywood looms over our characters, specifically from the numerous posters that peer into the camera, projecting their influence onto both Emma Stone's character and the movie itself. Casablanca is explicitly mentioned on more than one occasion, likely due to it's towering standard as the pinnacle of movies. While Bogart was notoriously known to lazily fake his piano scenes, Chazelle and Gosling flaunt their real piano talent. However, the real influence I found was in the two films similar endings.
The melancholy ending of the guy not achieving his dreams is extremely hard to pull off, especially pulling it off with a romantic twist. Casablanca does it with ease, having Bogart's sacrifice his own romance for the better of his girl, a sign of his love. Here, again the protagonists are given a choice between love and their dreams. Much like Casablanca, romance really takes backseat to the characters dreams. When this comes to a head, the characters make the ultimate choice, a choice that had my mom had a hard time dealing with it. Casablanca's choice plays with Bogart taking the moral high ground, giving up his dream girl for the girls own benefit. Our heroes in La La Land don't have their answer quite as clear cut.
Following your dreams is an often touted cliche of movies that rarely showcases the pitfalls of making that choice. While the protagonists of La La Land end up following those choices, the costs are also made quite clear. Its questions what happens when dreams conflict, whether that be when a personal dream conflicting with your date's dream, or when two internal dreams conflict. Much like Whiplash's stellar, near self-contained ending, the final 10 minutes of La La Land play almost separately to the rest of the story. It's as though Chazelle wrote the ending epilogue first and then transcribed the rest of the movie around that emotional ending.
The near dialogue-less final few minutes playback the rest of the movie, repeating scenes and changing others, flashing Gosling and Stone's whole relationship before the screen. The scene is open for debate, especially when considering perspective. If you view the monologue from Stone's perspective, which I don't, my interpretation doesn't make quite as much sense. For Stone, it would be Gosling giving up his dream for her. To me, that viewing largely conflicts with the whole crux of the film, as Gosling's City of Stars states,"Is this the start of something wonderful and new? Or one more dream that I cannot make true?" To add to this, the flashback occurs when Gosling first makes eye contact with Stone, not the other way around. He sees her, visibly startled, and then relives his life's choices. He chose his career dream over his female dream. Which was the right choice? The movie never answers. Instead, it gives a dreary sense of melancholy, showing that Gosling's character can't have both.
I appreciate how, while both characters are artists pursuing their passions, they go about art differently. Stone believes art needs and audience, while Gosling believes art is art, regardless to whether people are paying attention. These viewpoints then bleed over into each other as the couple gets into a relationship and influences one another. Gosling ends up sacrificing his art for the sake of an audience. Stone humiliates herself, pouring herself into a project no one saw. At first, I viewed this as Gosling succeeding, but upon further reflection I don't think thats the case. Instead, the movie never says which was the correct approach, only that sacrifice and a wasting of ones true dreams needs to take place. Dreams need to evolve to be pursued.
Both Gosling and Stone are wonderful in their perspective roles. Stone has the more weighted performance, largely due to her final, one-take sad song. While no one will be toping Affleck's performance this year, both actors did a fine job here. I loved that, excluding Legend and Simmon's minuscule roles, this really is a film about two people and their relationship. It helped keep the film's tone consistent.
Overall, La La Land is the best film of 2016. The hype is real, it leaves you with more visually, emotionally, and intellectually than anything I've seen recently. Also, have fun getting Someone in the Crowd out of your head.