La La Land

La La Land ★★★★½

The main thought I was left with walking out of La La Land, once I got over the sheer exhilaration of the film, was that Damien Chazelle is a goddamned treasure and I hope he keeps making films for decades. While I don't think La La Land has quite the bite of Chazelle's previous film, Whiplash, it is a thrilling and excessively endearing trip through the pure magic of cinema.

Referential (maybe to a fault, but you'll be having too much fun to care) of a bygone era of old Hollywood musicals, La La Land follows the trials of two LA dreamers: Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a pianist with dreams of starting his own jazz club, and Mia (Emma Stone), an actress who serves coffee to movie stars and aspires to become one herself. Gosling and Stone have fantastic chemistry as we saw first in 2011's Crazy, Stupid, Love. Gosling matches a leading man image with comic wit, and Stone's exceedingly expressive face—she's as much indebted to Mr. Bean as Katharine Hepburn—is magnetic. The two meet a couple of times under hostile circumstances before being wowed by each other's passion. What follows is a rather conventional romance story about following dreams; admittedly La La Land is breaking no new ground narratively. In fact, it's (intentionally) treading old ground. From the way the film itself sends up The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Singin' in the Rain to the way Sebastian holds the tradition of jazz so dearly, La La Land is a love letter to the past. And that's not necessarily bad thing, even if it keeps the film from ultimately being as much substance as style.

But, man, what style it has. From the opening sequence that imagines an LA freeway full of traffic jammed drivers begin to sing and dance atop their cars, strap in for a level of energy and exuberance that is sustained (nearly) for the entire 2+ hours of the film. Composer Justin Hurwitz (Whiplash) reunites with Chazelle to write all the music here: the infectious jazz tunes that will stick in your head (and heart) in one of those soundtracks you'll keep listening to on the regular.

For all the musical love the film heaps on jazz, it's Chazelle's camera that embodies the spirit of the genre, totally unrestricted by expectations or consistency of style, his cinematography comes alive. There is one moment where we open in on a party around a pool. It starts slowly as we take in the excitement happening, and then becomes part of its action as the camera jumps into the pool and begins to spin 360s in the centre of the mayhem in a shot that would make Baz Luhrmann's jaw drop. La La Land might reignite interest in classic movie musicals, but I'm more inspired by what it's going to do for young filmmakers looking at what is formally expected and envisioning ways they can do things differently. That is, if Chazelle's formal audacity doesn't intimidate them outright. The final sequence of La La Land is one of the best things I've seen onscreen in a long time, pure visual cinematic joy and ecstasy.

I have some hesitations about the film, specifically with regards to the Gosling character's relationship to jazz and the way the film uses a supporting character played by John Legend. Even ignoring some narrative drag around the middle, the way Sebastian treats jazz with a jeremiad alarmism makes the Legend character's willingness to "evolve" the genre (he makes good points, let's be honest) feel like the film is treating him with scorn. It's especially uncomfortable through a lens of a white guy trying to "save" jazz from a black guy. On the one hand, you don't invite John Legend to write and perform a song for the film if you expect the audience to see that song as garbage. On the other hand, the sequence in which Sebastian's band goes through a photo shoot is clearly mocking the entire exercise of commercial music. It feels a tad hypocritical, as does the entire thesis of the film given what has come before. But, hey, this is, as the title suggests, a fantasy world where being true to one's passions is a life-sustaining practice.

Hesitations aside, La La Land is an almost pure thrill, a joyous celebration of music, of cinema, of artistry. Even if its message is ultimately slight, there is something to be said for escapism. Especially escapism of this calibre.

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