La La Land (2016) / *****

la_la_land_ver2It is going to be hard for this review to properly encapsulate the pure cinematic joy that is La La Land. I’m going to do my best, but the simple version is, I deeply, deeply loved this movie; I couldn’t stop smiling as I watched it, got caught up in every single musical number, got swept up in the story, and could have easily watched it over and over again without stopping. So, yeah. I liked it just a bit.

You’d be forgiven from not expecting La La Land to be writer/director Damien Chazelle’s follow up to the intense, riveting Whiplash. Yes, both movies prominently feature jazz and characters who love to perform it, but that’s where the similarities end. Whiplash was undeniably modern, while La La Land is a wonderful throwback in every sense of the word, opening with the classic “Filmed in CinemaScope” logo and a huge, sprawling classical musical number set in the midst of an L.A. traffic jam. And so, within minutes, you become aware that La La Land is a few things: it’s earnest, unironic, big and sweeping, and unabashedly old fashioned. And by the end of that first number, I was sold.

Because, let me tell you, Chazelle’s staging of musical numbers here is absolutely masterful. Eschewing cuts (as far as I could tell, every number appears to be a single, unbroken take, with maybe some cuts digitally covered up here and there) and filmed in jaw-dropping beauty, Chazelle throws himself into the musical numbers with gusto, letting trucks fly open to reveal drumkits, characters spiral up into star-filled galaxies, worlds to fade away into shadow, and so much more. It’s a director’s showcase, and Chazelle makes the most of it, turning every number into a beautiful, rich experience that you just can’t get away from, underlining every emotion, and letting all of the numbers build as they go. It’s craftsmanship of the finest level, and it’s so much of what makes La La Land wonderful – it turns the numbers from sheer dazzling technical achievement to emotional richness and glory. (Mind you, it doesn’t hurt that the songs are universally catchy and fantastic, thanks to songwriter Justin Hurwitz; from the lyrics to the melodies, there’s not a misfire in the bunch, really.)

He’s matched, at every step of the way, by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who throw themselves into their roles every bit as much as you’d hope, singing their own numbers, and even (in Gosling’s case) playing the piano for the jazz numbers. What results is a wonderful honestly and emotion to the musical numbers, one that allows Gosling and Stone to invest every number with their feelings and emotion (something akin to the beautiful and wonderful Umbrellas of Cherbourg, for you classic film fans). When you combine all of that with Chazelle’s story – in which an aspiring actress and a jazz musician meet, fall in love, and struggle with their careers – the result is magical, turning a simple character study into something romantic (and Romantic) and bigger than it would otherwise be. More than that, Chazelle invests the story with stakes beyond the relationship, letting Stone wrestle with her dream of being an actress and Gosling deal with the role of jazz in a modern world that doesn’t want it much.

The end result is something wonderful, particularly in a year (and a past few months) that have been rough on the world: it’s earnest, unironic, heartfelt, and beautiful, believing in the power of dreams, the beauty of love, and the importance of art. It doesn’t apologize for itself or make excuses; it’s a throwback done with love, a story told in sweeping gestures without snark or irony. And it all just works, becoming maybe one of my favorite moviegoing experiences in recent memory. I loved, loved, loved this movie, on pretty much every level you could love a movie, and it’s a much needed tonic after the past few months. What a treat.


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