La La Land (2016)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt
Synopsis: A jazz musician falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Musical
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (For some language)
Release Date: December 25, 2016
All artists of all professions have an origin story about how they became successful in their careers. Some of these artists (actors, for example) had a breakout role in a low-budget film that was a commercial smash at the box office that propelled them to stardom. Others (and most) are less fortunate, having to eek their way into the profession and then slowly climb the ladder to the top of the business.
Damien Chazelle, fresh off his critical and commercial hit Whiplash (2014), writes and directs a semi-autobiographical film in La La Land. Chazelle originally wrote the screenplay for the film in 2010, but no studio wanted to risk financing a modern jazz musical from an unknown director. So Chazelle put the film on hold and instead wrote and directed the less ambitious and risky Whiplash. Only after getting the attention from studios from Whiplash was Chazelle granted financing for La La Land, a quintessential example of how the film industry works.
And just like Whiplash, Chazelle doesn't disappoint.
The film's opening scene will undoubtedly go down as one of the most famous scenes ever put into a musical film--or any film for that matter. The six-minute scene looks like it is filmed in one single shot (when in reality it's discreetly cut into three shots). During standstill traffic (an everyday occurrence in LA), the passengers suddenly get out of their cars and perform an expertly choreographed dance number. The camera, which was mounted on a crane for the first two shots and then a steadicam for the final shot, glides over and through the characters as they sing and dance. The scene is indeed a marvel to behold, and sets the tone and mood of the film off on the right foot.
The opening scene is actually one of the few scenes that take place in broad daylight--the vast majority of the film takes place at night, which turns out to be a beautiful aesthetic choice on the part of Chazelle. Throughout the night scenes, Chazelle employs a blue and red color palette, mixing in some yellows for the warms on the characters of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they interact about their aspiring careers as an actress and jazz musician. The cinematography of the film, especially during these night scenes, is extremely elegant, stylish, and enchanting to look at. It literally makes you want to jump into the screen and into the world of the characters and successfully evokes the mood and aesthetic feel of Hollywood Golden Age musical classics such as Singin' in the Rain (Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952). The editing of the film by Tom Cross (who also edited Whiplash for Chazelle) is another strong technical aspect of the film that supports the tone created by Chazelle. Cross's editing is incredibly sharp and swift, cutting to the beats of the music just as he did for the musical numbers in Whiplash, creating entertaining dance scenes that are hard to turn away from, even if you're not into musicals. Furthermore, Cross employs tactics such as circular transitions from certain scenes, evoking a retro feel to the film that is simultaneously fresh and nostalgic, as these kinds of transitions were heavily used during Hollywood's musicals of the '40s and '50s.
The story itself is a bit overshadowed by the technical achievements of the film. Two aspiring artists and their struggles in Los Angeles is not exactly groundbreaking material, and the film's ultimate message to "follow your dream no matter the cost" comes dangerously close to a message you'd find on Disney Channel. The fact of the matter is, there is a fine line between following your dream and realizing that your dream is too far out to have the plausibility of becoming a reality. Many, many people who enter Los Angeles aspiring to be the next Steven Spielberg or Meryl Streep don't make it. It's a simple fact that many people get their big break by stumbling into a role or receiving acclaim from a low-budget/Indie that happened to become a hit, not by slowly climbing the ladder of success. Just look at Damien Chazelle. Nevertheless, La La Land gives hope to aspiring artists that are trying to break into the industry. It lectures to them that you only get one life, and if you really want to follow and achieve your dream, you will likely have to give up something or someone you love. And that last statement is the strongest and most poignant message in the film--a message that the world needs to hear and learn from.
La La Land is a beautifully shot and directed film from Damien Chazelle, offering audiences a simultaneously fresh and nostalgic take on the Hollywood musical, all the while delivering a poignant message about the cost of following your dreams. It also features a strong performance from Emma Stone, one that should offer her an another Oscar nomination. Ultimately though, the film's praise goes to its technical aspects, including the direction, cinematography, production design, and editing, all of which should easily receive Oscar nominations. Whether or not you're particularly into musicals, La La Land is a technical achievement that makes the young Chazelle a director to be reckoned with in the coming years.