Movie Review : La La Land (2016)
Damien Chazelle took the movie industry by storm with his Oscar-nominated first movie Whiplash in 2014, which I thought was the best film in competition that year. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman was a defendable winner, but it was Chazelle who captured the audiences' imagination with his lean, mean tale of abuse, sacrifice and excellence. La La Land is his second movie and it couldn't be any more different from the first. It's a goddamn musical about Los Angeles, movies, soulful dreamers and, of course, jazz music. I cannot tell you why anyone who's seen Whiplash would possibly be interested in seeing La La Land, but I did based on the optimistic perspective that Damien Chazelle must've known what the fuck he was doing and guess what? I was right.
La La Land is the story of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a passionate jazz pianist born fifty years too late and struggling to make ends meet and Mia (Emma Stone), a talented young actress who struggles getting attention from Hollywood executives. Fate keeps putting them in each other's way until they hopelessly fall in love and move in together in Sebastian messy bachelor, making it a proper home. Both are passionate, career-driven people, though and they're not used to balance personal ambition and romantic involvement. Sebastian is obviously talented, but struggles finding his place in a society that lost its use for jazz and Mia has an increasingly difficult time seeing a future for her in Los Angeles after the heartbreak of each audition. Mia and Sebastian eventually have to choose between their dream and one another.
The movie's calling card is its gorgeously written screenplay. Damien Chazelle simply is a terrific screenwriter, no matter what kind of story he's telling. La La Land is about the incompatibility of classic Hollywood dreams and the ruthless business that engineers them. Chazelle throws jabs at the artificial nature of the moviemaking business throughout the entire movie. There's a great scene in the beginning where Mia walks through a hallway full of women who look exactly like her after an audition. Sebastian takes his coffee in an ugly urban terrace in another scene, yet he's shielded by a billboard featuring a sunny, gorgeous dreamscape. La La Land is full of these smart, unobtrusive references which makes it consistently engaging without ever taking itself too seriously. There are also several movie references such as Singin' in the Rain, the Umbrellas of Cherbourg and even Casablanca. La La Land is passionate and competent. It knows what its talking about.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of La La Land is its self-awareness. It's not trying to be a movie about underdogs finding success against the odds. It's about dreams and reality. It is perhaps best exemplified in Sebastian's relationship to his nemesis Keith (John Legend) with who he profoundly disagrees about jazz. Not only Keith is not portrayed as the antagonist by Damien Chazelle, but he's portrayed as someone who deeply respect Sebastian's skills, cares for him and is ultimately right about the nature of jazz. Chazelle paints Sebastian's flaws through Keith and I thought it was just brilliant writing. Speak of, Legend really claimed his songwriting superiority over movie composer Justin Hurwitz. His song Start a Fire is a absolute scorcher. I wasn't really impressed with any of the singing and dancing in La La Land. I didn't make a big deal out of it though, because I thought it was willingly low-key. The movie never really commits to being a classic musical or a contemporary piece about broken dreams and it kind of worked.
No, I do not think City of Stars is a good song.
I wouldn't finish this review without addressing the whitewashing accusations flying on the internet. Some make a better case than others, but I believe they're really unfair overall. Take what you want form this because I'm a white guy defending another white guy, but I fail to see what Damien Chazelle should've done differently. It's a musical about TWO people who are profoundly disconnected from reality and profoundly in love. They meet in this kind of creative limbo that has nothing to do with the real world. I fail to see how this movie should have any social responsibilities from the get-go, but Damien Chazelle also tackled that aspect. Sebastian does indeed long for the past, but the only person he oppresses in himself. It is portrayed as a self-destructive instinct. I thought if Chazelle insisted any more than he did, La La Land would've reeked of token inclusion and other pseudo-progressive bullshit. His only responsibility was to write the best story he could and he went above and beyond the line of duty on that. I apologize in advance if this is racist, but I do not believe La La Land oppresses anybody.
The 2017 Academy Awards are a couple weeks away and La La Land is a prohibitive favorite to win everything after its almost flawless evening at the Golden Globes. The best movie nominated for the Oscar almost never wins and I wouldn't doubt there will be at least one better nominee than La La Land, but I'm rooting for Damien Chazelle since he got shafted by the Academy for the gorgeous and intense Whiplash. La La Land has a foot in the stars and another in reality and that's what makes it quirky and unique. I wouldn't call it a transformative movie or anything, but it's a good time and it's easy on the emotional manipulation. Damien Chazelle is definitely for real and it's time to embrace him as one of Hollywood's smartest, most talented new directors.