LA LA LAND (2016) - FILM REVIEW
When capturing a musical moment in the cinema, it is often important to fantasize, to elongate the magic of the situation for as long as you can. Not being excessive, of course, even musical films which ground themselves in a reality and strong framework sometimes know the necessity of bending its own realism for the sake of the piece. It’s not an alarming, offsetting jolt in the storytelling, nor is it a forgoing of the picture’s true body and structure, aiming just for the heart and soul and not for its spine. In fact, if done right, the surreal, imaginative, and expressionistic numbers and sequences feel as apart of the film as the mandatory dialogue, actions, and basic story progression. If done really well in a musical film, the unnatural, in this way, becomes natural, just another extraordinary avenue for the characters and story to unfold before us on the screen.
It is here that La La Land, the newest film by writer/director Damien Chazelle (sidebar: likes jazz), is superlative, spectacular, and truly unparalleled as the modern musical. The sequences wherein our main characters are seen singing, dancing, whistling, tapping their feet become frequent and well-flowing, like running water. In an era of cinema where certain scenes and sequences in a movie can seem like singular highlights or one-offs, La La Land looks down from its shining balcony and scoffs. This is not a series of cool shots and pretty colors, shuffled with some nice piano and orchestral pieces; this is a film, one of glimpses, touches, breezes, dashes, fleeting moments. It is a film that demands your attention, but never needs to ask for it. If a film could bypass the mandatory needs of story progression and character development, and instead focus clearly on the harmony and the glory of music and its communal power, combining the raw emotion of pure romance with the glorious sounds and songs it encompasses throughout, La La Land would be the best movie of the year, in several years.
But you can’t really make a movie like that. You need the mandatory, basic story progression, character development, motivations, wants, needs, obstacles, and whatnot. You also, in the process, need a strong enough screenplay and pure story from the beginning to pull that off and excel. This is where La La Land loses its magic touch it seemingly cannot run out of initially (although, I must admit, the opening traffic sequence had me absolutely baffled in confusion; questionable “hidden” edits to cover up the one-take gimmick, odd choreography and decisions within the number -- it’ll be interesting to see which people decide to commit to the full two hours after that). I had a transitional issue watching this, wherein I was dazed by the musical sequences, only to be dragged into the pit of confusion and discomfort that is Chazelle’s “insight” on modern relationships. Each scene, as the music fades out, becomes another attempt to spin onto the story a clever quip of romance and its folly, and it doesn’t work here. There’s a disdain of the way of young love that Chazelle just needs to get off the page, that seems lost here among the tap-dancing and swift movement.
Within this dilemma, the priority of the piece seems to compromise itself and shift to a narrow, cynical nature in its lengthy second and third acts. I guess the last fifteen or twenty minutes do it some justice, with its knockout delivery on success and happiness, and the connection and counteraction the two have on one another, but otherwise, the last half or so falls into an unknown trajectory, one where the music is so few and far between, it might as well be a western. I sat there, palpably befuddled, as to why Chazelle consciously chose to filter his work from its best gifts to its weakest, thinnest elements. The characters in the process become two-dimensional, seemingly on the quest to find the third dimension together (romance?) or to just be successful in their respective fields. It all gets shaken up, and for the movie to have a recognizable hook, only to abandon it in favor of a much less recognizable and, truthfully, engaging arc is very much beyond me.
Still though, there remain great moments. Emma Stone is absolutely a revelation, and she earns everything she’s got here. Jaw-droppingly real and staggering. Ryan Gosling...manages, sure. He can’t help the fact that he’s the lesser of two flat-ish characterizations. The two together accomplish what you can imagine Chazelle wanted, which was to rejuvenate the old Hollywood chemistry of couples and movie stars, which flourishes here. These two have that connection you just can’t map out on a production, with months of prep -- it’s a natural knack, and boy, have they got it. And besides that whole opening-scene-being-very-lame thing, the entire city of Los Angeles is incredibly magical. Production design and cinematography cannot be heralded enough. There’s this magic of the city; the lights, the glory, the studio lots, the sunshine (see: opening number entitled “Another Day of Sun”, wherein several people sing and dance under the hot sun, preceding a title card that reads “Winter”). But there’s an underbelly too, one of loneliness and fakery and hundreds to thousands of big dreams that have been reached or settled down, accomplished or drawn to a close. This film captures both simultaneously, a triumph of the city’s purity and its enormous weight on each who sees it.
Despite the film shattering the awards circuit and almost every person coming out of the theater saying, “it’s an all-timer…”, I had my surefire problems with La La Land. Though it rises above the surface of most musicals for sure, and ultimately makes for a heartwarming experience, it has basic problems within its core that so many movies fall from, only to never really be heard of again. I think, however, the sort of magic that comes from the film, that rare spark you see maybe a few times a year at the movies, is revived in great fashion, and the film’s problems and unshakable issues, well...are shakable, in the end. There’s a magic and true spark that should happen every time the lights go out and the projector flickers on, and in La La Land, that spark is palpable and out in the open, for all to see. It’s not the idea of old-school musicals redone that makes this movie work; it’s the idea that once in awhile, a rare gem can come along and knock you out, and in a wholly unexpected way.
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comments on the screen by nolan lampson.