I don’t write a lot of film reviews, partially because I write for a music website and partially because I’m not usually on top of new releases enough to prepare anything that is particularly timely or relevant. But I just had to sit down and write something about La La Land, simply because I can’t remember the last time I loved a move so wholeheartedly.
In no world is La La Land a surefire hit. It’s an old-fashioned movie musical releasing in the same month as a new Star Wars movie. It nods to films and musicals that came before it, but is a completely original project, with no well-known source material to help prop it up. Both the plot and the music of the film are built around jazz, hardly a well-loved genre among average listeners. Director Damien Chazelle only has two previous direction credits to his name, only one of which—2014’s Whiplash—is likely to be recognizable to most moviegoers. Indeed, in an age when just about every film seems to be either a sequel or an adaptation (if not both), it’s almost remarkable that a movie like this got the greenlight. There’s simply nothing else like it in modern movies.
In all likelihood, you can thank the star power and chemistry of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling for getting this film made. Stone and Gosling were so delightful together in 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love. that I was anticipating La La Land before I even knew what it was about. Any film that can reunite two of my favorite people in Hollywood was going to be worth a watch—even that shoddy Gangster Squad movie from a few years back. Predictably, Stone and Gosling anchor La La Land by making the love story believable and worth rooting for. Luckily, there are also so many other things to adore here that I probably won’t be able to cover them all in this review.
Let’s start with the musical elements. Film musicals can be a drag for a variety of reasons, from the need to cast high-profile stars in the lead roles (usually in lieu of better singers and dancers) to the way that many Broadway shows just translate to film in a rather cheesy fashion. La La Land is freed from both of these pitfalls by virtue of being an original property rather than an adaptation. The film was dreamed up and written by Chazelle, with a jazzy, textured score from Justin Hurwitz. As a result, the songs aren’t built to be big vocal showstoppers, which means that they are well-suited to Gosling’s smoky baritone and Stone’s light, wispy soprano. Chazelle also wanted to ground the film in real life, which means that the musical sequences usually come across more as playful daydreams than as earnest, overly bombastic theatrical numbers.
Instead of going for bombast, Chazelle and Hurwitz create showstoppers in other ways. In the opening scene of the film, the camera alights on a gridlocked Los Angeles highway, panning from car to car and catching snippets of different songs and styles of music coming from each. Eventually, the scene morphs into a joyful song-and-dance number, with various traffic-jammed California dreamers leaping on top of their cars and singing about their ambitions. The fact that we’ll never see any of these characters again doesn’t matter; the choreography, the production values, and the song itself (called “Another Day of Sun”) sell the scene as a grandiose overture for the more personal story to come.
The best musicals are always the ones that balance the musical and storytelling elements with stunning aesthetics. Chicago won a Best Picture Oscar in 2002 in part because it was a gorgeous thing to look at as well as listen to. From start to finish, La La Land dazzles largely on the strength of its aesthetics. Everything about this film—from the lovely, colorful dresses Stone wears in seemingly every scene to the already-iconic slow dance in the planetarium stars—is a feast for the eyes. It also doesn’t hurt that Chazelle is better than arguably any working director at capturing the rhythm and excitement of a live music performance. Part of what made Whiplash such a thrill was how the direction and camerawork conveyed the sweaty, kinetic intensity of jazz improvisation. La La Land’s music is more controlled, but Chazelle’s love for music and his understanding of what makes watching a performance so exciting is on full display. From swanky restaurants to jazz clubs to the stages of packed concert halls, La La Land makes live music feel every bit as wondrous as it feels when you’re actually in the room.
More than anything, though, what hit me hardest with La La Land was how it encapsulated the passion and pain of trying to make your dream come true. Stone should win an Oscar for her portrayal of a struggling actress on the verge of giving up. A scene late in the film where she sings a song in honor of “The Fools Who Dream” might just put tears in your eyes. Gosling is nearly as good, using his trademark wit and sarcasm to mask a character more complex than he initially seems. Embittered and disillusioned about a general public that doesn’t respect or understand his art (jazz music), Gosling’s character is also fiercely passionate, endlessly loyal, and resilient enough to know that giving your dreams one last try is always worth the risk.
The script hits the big emotional beats of these characters beautifully, charting their romance from not-so-meet-cute to…well, I won’t give the ending. Ultimately, though, it’s the small details that make these two dreamer archetypes feel like real people: Gosling putting the first dollar in his tip jar before a gig, or repeatedly rewinding a cassette tape of his own piano playing while he’s sitting in traffic, evidently disgruntled about what he’s hearing; Stone’s face every time one of her auditions gets interrupted for a bullshit reason, or the sad, lonely message she leaves on Gosling’s voicemail after he’s been gone on tour for weeks.
In the lead-up to this film, I’ve read a lot about how it doesn’t deserve its perceived “Best Picture frontrunner” status—not because it isn’t wonderful, but because, after a year like 2016, it would be wrong to have a film “about white people dreaming in Hollywood” be crowned the film of the year. Just like most music publications have argued that the best albums of the year were the most socially or politically “relevant,” there are those who would say that the best picture of this year should be something that highlights all of the political strife and racial tension that reigned supreme in the year of Trump.
But a film that sends a message to keep on dreaming even if it breaks your heart isn’t superfluous after this year. On the contrary, I’d argue that it matters now more than ever. In a world of hate, hurt, intolerance, war, and idiot politicians, being yourself and chasing what you want matters more than ever. Being so passionate about something that it breaks you in half and then puts you back together again matters more than ever. Falling in love with someone who is going to be able to help you reach your highest potential matters more than ever. And movies that dazzle us, intoxicate us, thrill us, make us smile, make us cry, and transport us to a different plane of being—even for just a few hours—matter more than ever. La La Land does all of that and is a true world-class accomplishment—no matter what the 2016 Oscar narrative ends up being.