Friday, January 13, 2017

La La Land

LA LA LAND (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

Through the unchanging seasons of Los Angeles the musical LA LA LAND follows the romantic ups and downs between aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz aficionado Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Although their paths cross knowingly and unknowingly, their friendship doesn’t blossom into a love story until music and the movies brings them together in a way that seems predestined. Neither is living their dreams. Mia is auditioning for likely lousy television shows. Sebastian broods over his desired location for the jazz club of his dreams being occupied by a trendy business.

Together, though, they push each other to make strides toward what they want. Sebastian encourages Mia to write the one-woman show that can showcase her abilities. She persuades him to take a job in a band whose music doesn’t meet his purist standards but pays well enough so he can save toward opening the club he envisions.

An original musical for the screen and an unabashed throwback to those from Hollywood’s Golden Age and the French New Wave, LA LA LAND bursts with color and energy. The ebullient opening number, a single unbroken take on a gridlocked highway, serves as a dazzling introduction, and the staggering finale, which reimagines the film’s key moments, sends one reeling out of the theater from writer-director Damien Chazelle’s deft touch and Justin Hurwitz’s music. Everything in between proves swoon-worthy too, with the standout being Mia’s sung audition that puts the final act in motion.

Talk of the magic of the movies can be deserving of eyerolls, especially at awards time, but LA LA LAND merits such effusive praise. Through theatrical lighting, judicious editing, and heightened or fantastical sequences, it envisions a world of promise and joy even among the disappointments and hardships. The lighter than air spirit and exquisite beauty caress the mind and the heart, transforming LA LA LAND into an instant mood-lifter.

Part of the tension in LA LA LAND comes from Sebastian’s insistence on jazz continuing to exist per the terms of an old ideal. While the film may appear to side with his snootiness as he holds his nose playing more contemporary and accessible music, Chazelle challenges the notion that something was better or purer way back when. After all, jazz as Sebastian prefers it is more of hobbyist’s curio that is destined to near-extinction if it doesn’t adapt to the times. LA LA LAND views the film musical in similar terms, that without accounting for the tastes and realities of today, it too is as good as dead. Gosling and Stone are not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, but they are serviceable dancers and singers, with Stone the more at ease of the two. The system that existed for screen hoofers and belters has not been in place for a long time. Casting stars rather than more gifted but unknown performers is a compromise, but it’s one that allows something as wonderful as this to be made.

Grade: A+

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