Review: ‘La La Land’ Dreams Big in Enchanting Throwback Musical

"La La Land" (2016) - Movie Review

‘La La Land’ Joins ‘Whiplash’ in Back-to-Back Triumphs

In 2014, writer-director Damien Chazelle captured critics and movie-goers’ attentions alike with the masterfully crafted drama Whiplash. A pitch-perfect examination of the darker side of a musician’s ambition and obsession, Whiplash hit all the right notes. Literally. Two year later, Chazelle returns with a much lighter, albeit equally involving La La Land.

Guided by the musicals of old, Chazelle’s La La Land follows a musician (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) both struggling in the cutthroat world of Los Angeles. While it’s never that dramatized in the film, for Sebastian and Mia, realizing their ultimate dreams isn’t something that’s just handed on a platter.

When we first meet Sebastian, he’s playing piano at a restaurant run by Whiplash alum J.K. Simmons. Clearly it’s not the greatest of gigs as he’s forced to stick to a generic routine of Christmas songs for the patrons. He’d rather spice up the mood with jazz, which he does and results in his termination. Mia’s spinning her wheels too, stuck in a dead-end barista job on a Warner Bros. backlot. In between shifts, she auditions for various roles, which leads to rejection after rejection.

Between song and dance, Sebastian and Mia cross paths time and time again and finally connect. Their journey as dreamers is a beautifully uplifting portrait and will hit home for many viewers. Pursuing one’s dreams is never an easy road. La La Land is a prime example of the sacrifices and tribulations that one must make to reach said goal. On various occasions, Sebastian and Mia even lose sight of reality, caught up in their own la la land. Then again, good for them. If you don’t go outside of your comfort zone and take a risk, you’ll be stuck in life’s terrible limbo.

SEE ALSO: TIFF 2016 Review: La La Land

Enriching its stellar storytelling, La La Land pays homage to the Hollywood musical through catchy songs. From the very first scene of the cast breaking out in song on the Los Angeles freeway, we can sense there’s some genuine magic ahead. Fortunately, the soundtrack by Justin Hurwitz never bogs down the musical, utilizing song only when necessary. There’s a more natural throwback approach here than in say Les Miserables or Moulin Rouge. Played various times throughout the film, “City of Stars” is quite the passionate anthem, reflecting the film’s overall theme. Chazelle couldn’t have written a better love letter to musicals than in La La Land. The best analogy would be how 2011’s The Artist brilliantly captured the Silent Era for contemporary audiences.

Gosling and Stone have such electric chemistry in La La Land. Having worked together before in Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad, the duo were simply made for each other here. From triumphs to gut-wrenching arguments, Sebastian and Mia feel as real as could be. Coupled with Chazelle’s alluring screenplay and direction and we have a winning ensemble all around. Like Whiplash, there’s an immense amount of passion for this project and it truly translates to the big screen.

After his lesser-known Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and most recently Whiplash, Chazelle incorporates his love for jazz into his trifecta of films. He, like Sebastian is a traditionalist who pays homage to the greats of the past. But at the same time, he also looks to the future, bringing new audiences to what may be deemed a dying genre. Musicals aren’t exactly an instant success story with younger audiences, playing more to the older generations. Chazelle breaks through the barrier with La La Land, transcending this musical across generations. That in itself is an accomplishment worth praise.

La La Land isn’t just a magnificent wonder on the ears, it’s two hours of visual spectacle. The gorgeous cinematography by Linus Sandgren evokes a palette of Los Angeles like no other. Even in this creative battleground where everyone’s trying to make a name, there’s still something classy and beautiful still in existence.

It’s rare to find a director like Damien Chazelle who can deliver back-to-back masterpieces. First Whiplash, and now La La Land. La La Land comes at the perfect time as everything one could hope and dream for, especially when so many of life’s obstacles hold one back.

Written by
Matt Marshall has been reviewing films since 2003, starting with "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." He specializes in home media, including 4K UHD, Blu-ray as well as box office analysis. He has a B.A. in Communications/Journalism from St. John Fisher College and resides in Rochester, NY.

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