La La Land (2016) Review

At the time of writing, La La Land has already made Golden Globes history by winning a record-breaking 7 awards including Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, Best Director as well as Best Actor for Ryan Gosling and Best Actress for Emma Stone.

Already a near-universal critical darling when it released in the US last December, Damien Chazelle’s much-anticipated follow-up to his jazz-infused Whiplash (2014) is a love letter to the ’50’s and ’60’s Hollywood musical.

Chazelle begins his movie with an immersive 6-minute song-and-dance opening number of the catchy “Another Day of Sun”, in which dozens of drivers got out of their cars on a Los Angeles freeway during a massive traffic jam. A fascinating aspect of this particular scene is the bravura single take that brilliantly stitched together using clever camera tricks. It was reportedly taken over two days to complete.

As for the rest of the songs, they are just as good as they get. Whether it was the brief scene where Sebastian crooning “City of Stars” at the Hermosa Beach Pier or Sebastian and Mia swaying together in the Hollywood Hills while singing “A Lovely Night”, each song number is lovingly composed and orchestrated by Justin Hurwitz.

Then, there is the “what-if?” scenario scored to “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme”. I wouldn’t want to spoil the details here. All I can say this 7-minute montage is a moving finale that perfectly justified the relationship between Sebastian and Mia.

While La La Land excels as a top-notch Hollywood musical, the movie also surprises me in a way that Chazelle (who also served as the screenwriter) deepens his story further during the second half by introducing an internal conflict between Sebastian and Mia’s relationship as well as their respective careers. It was no doubt an unexpected tonal shift from the carefree yet uplifting boy-meets-girl tone established earlier in the movie. But it was executed well enough, thanks to Chazelle’s sleight-of-hand direction. In fact, Chazelle doesn’t shy away from depicting the harsh reality upon fulfilling a dream as an artist in the cutthroat world of music and showbiz. For instance, Sebastian desperately wanted to bring his love for traditional jazz to modern listeners. Unfortunately, his rigid thinking doesn’t sit well with today’s era as most people prefer a more contemporary musical style. As a result, he forced to adapt to the new surrounding. This is evident during a crucial conversation scene between Sebastian and his longtime musician friend, Keith (John Legend).

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone share terrific chemistry as two aspiring dreamers who both wanted to make it big in Los Angeles. Individually speaking, Gosling emotes well as the brooding jazz pianist, Sebastian. But at other times, he can be wonderfully sarcastic in his expression (such as the scene where he pretends to enjoy performing a gig at an afternoon pool party). Stone is wonderfully down-to-earth as Mia, while her biggest spotlight comes during her show-stopping number of “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”. The particular song is melancholy yet heartfelt enough that it should be Stone’s ultimate ticket to secure a possible Oscar nomination.

With only three movies under his belt including Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), Whiplash and now La La Land, Damien Chazelle has clearly established himself as one of the today’s great genre directors in all things musical.