Cinematic Releases: La La Land (2016) - Reviewed

Damien Chazelle first appeared on the film scene with his 2009 jazz musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.  With a unique mixture of choreographed tap dancing numbers and cast of nonprofessional actors, the film instantly garnered attention as a joyous ode to a bygone era of movie musicals.  Despite the acclaim, Chazelle remained under the radar, taking on screenwriting jobs for The Last Exorcism II and Grand Piano.  Around this time, Chazelle began putting together an old fashioned CinemaScope era musical ala Rodgers and Hammerstein called La La Land which was to be a colorful piece of escapist entertainment set in the modern world where dreams of success in Hollywood clash with the hardships of reality

Still unknown at the time, financiers continually passed on La La Land until Chazelle got his first big break into the mainstream with his technically brilliant drumming drama Whiplash.  Earning five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Whiplash took home three including Best Supporting Actor J.K. Simmons, Best Sound Mixing and Best Editing.  After the overwhelming success of Whiplash, Chazelle was now given the carte blanche to make his long gestating passion project into a flesh and blood reality.  The result is one of the most delightful escapist entertainments you’re likely to see on the silver screen all year.  While open to debate whether or not it surpasses Whiplash with even further dialogue about whether it is a work of originality or nostalgia, La La Land is so much fun with such skillfully choreographed dance numbers and original music that even the most cynical critics are likely to take their thinking caps off and enjoy the widescreen Technicolor pleasures offered onscreen.

More or less a glossier reworking of Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, replete with a park bench dance number even, the film stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in their third collaboration as two entertainers struggling for their big break in music and film.  With Stone as an aspiring actress and Gosling as a gifted pianist, much like Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones, the film follows the two songbirds in their mutual triumphs, failures and ongoing uphill battle to find a place in the so called Boulevard of Broken Dreams.  It is the kind of facile story Baz Luhrmann served up in Moulin Rouge but Chazelle’s direction is so good and the two leads are so strong it works anyway.  

One of the first things you’ll notice upon seeing La La Land is the opening CinemaScope logo.  Unlike the film’s closest antecedent Down with Love, La La Land is the first big overblown musical in ages to actually be shot with 2.55:1 CinemaScope 55mm lenses, creating an ultra-wide image replete with all the characteristics of a stretched CinemaScope image.  Looking at the actors faces, they share the same slight stretching seen in Carousel and The King and I.  While some viewers might feel like this is a problem, don’t fear, this is simply due to the curvature of the lenses and is part of the whole homage to the bygone era of competing widescreen formats.  In short, La La Land and The Hateful Eight mark two films within the last two years to revive dead film formats while making them feel immediate and modern.

Some critics complained that La La Land tries to evoke past musical numbers with frenzied editing and manic camerawork, but where Moulin Rouge was cut together so fast you couldn’t see anything, Chazelle achieves that rare feat of energetic whimsy while allowing the viewer to see everything.  Take for instance the aforementioned ‘park bench’ sequence, which plays out in a long take with Gosling and Stone engaged in a tapdance number.  Luhrmann would have cut it up with fifty angles and subliminal edits, but Chazelle’s camera remains trained on the actors so you can see and feel every move.  Simply dazzling to behold, you can tell everyone is having a blast making it and that Chazelle is enamored with the jazz oriented musical. 

In an age of cinematic nostalgia with older film formats being revitalized and bygone genres coming back into the mainstream, La La Land could have easily gone down as a well-meaning if not self-indulgent misfire but instead proved to be a triumph.  As a lover of the old fashioned musical, it is refreshing to see the genre coming back in the hands of someone who truly understands how to channel it rather than put his own snobbish spin on it.  Gosling and Stone are splendid and you’d have to be the most jaded cynic not to be swept up in Chazelle’s boundless energy and enthusiasm.  People will of course be arguing over which they prefer, Whiplash or La La Land, but no one can argue that this has some of the most fun you’re likely to have at the movies all year!


 - Andrew Kotwicki