Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, January 6, 2017

Critic's Corner: ‘La La Land’ is pure movie magic

Have you ever fallen in love with someone all over again? That’s what watching “La La Land” felt like to me. As Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling sang and danced their way through the best film of 2016, I felt like I was falling in love with the movies for the first time.

I’ve loved films since I was young. But while I was watching “La La Land,” a romantic musical written and directed by Damien Chazelle, whirlwinds were stirred up inside of me.

I was helpless against the storm. Many of the reasons I enjoy movies can be found in “La La Land.” It’s creative, energetic and smart. It’s light and frothy and fun yet it has the weight and substance of a good book. It’s the joy of being alive given form and motion.

This is a good time for “La La Land.” Moviegoers have become cynical and rigid in their tastes and scorn anything that shatters the fourth wall. This makes musicals a hard sell.

But the vibrancy of “La La Land” disarms audiences and draws viewers into a world in which people can, and do, break out in song and dance without a moment’s notice.

“La La Land” makes its intentions known right off the bat with a showstopper on a Los Angeles freeway.

It’s rush hour, cars are packed tight for miles and horns are blaring. A woman starts to sing along to the song on her radio. Then she gets out of her car and begins dancing. Then someone joins her. Before long, the entire cast of “La La Land” is taking part in an elaborately choreographed set piece.

Among them is Stone’s Mia, an aspiring actress. She soon meets a kindred soul in Sebastian, a brilliant piano player who dreams of opening a jazz club.

Chazelle weaves several themes seamlessly throughout “La La Land.” One is the way passion compels us to press forward even when the odds are against us. Another is the beauty we miss when we’re not looking. Mia and Sebastian are not only enthusiastic about what they do but talented as well, yet they’re invisible and unknown.

At first, Mia and Sebastian don’t like each other. But we know this is part of an age-old dance, and either the gravity of their circumstances or the magic of L.A. keeps drawing them to the same places and eventually, they couple up.

Chazelle made Mia and Sebastian easy to like: they’re optimistic and lively and they spout snappy dialogue. But the things that drew me to each of them were their love for their craft, their skill and their determination in the face of indifference.

In one scene, Mia is auditioning for a role. She pours out her soul and leaves it on the table. But the people there are distracted and don’t notice.

Chazelle shoots the scene in one shot and focuses solely on Mia. Everything else is communicated through sound. This forces Stone to sell the moment and makes the audience experience it.

Then there’s the scene in which Sebastian takes Mia to a club after she says she hates jazz. As the band performs an upbeat bebop tune, Sebastian explains the origin of jazz and what’s happening as the musicians play. His passion is infectious.

I love the way Chazelle directs this scene, too. Instead of filming a single shot, the camera is everywhere, capturing the energy in the room. The editing is quick, like the tempo of the music, and Gosling delivers Sebastian’s dialogue with breathless excitement.

“There, the saxophone player just hijacked the song!” Sebastian says, using every bit of air in his lungs to help Mia understand.

Stone and Gosling are as talented and dedicated to their craft as their characters are to theirs.

Stone is brilliant in the way she brings Mia to life. Instead of allowing Mia to be an L.A. cliché, Stone creates a complex character who’s full of surprises. She also displays a remarkable ability for hitting all of the right emotional notes in a scene. Stone can be vibrant and bubbly and at the same time reveal Mia’s uncertainty and weariness.

Gosling keeps pace with Stone step for step. With each scene, he proves he has more tools at his disposal than the extraordinary charisma he effortlessly projects.

Gosling also has commitment in spades. When I found out he learned to play the piano for his role in “La La Land,” I was more than impressed; I was stunned. The guy’s playing is nearly virtuosic.

While I’m on the topic of what Stone and Gosling can do besides act, they absolutely can sing and dance. They’re no Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers, but they hold their own.

The direction by Chazelle is magnificent. I’ve already discussed the intelligence and thought he invests in individual scenes. As much as I appreciate that level of filmmaking, the thing I like the most about his direction was the way he makes “La La Land” worth seeing in a theater.

Chazelle uses every inch of the wide screen to pull viewers into the film. Sometimes, he juxtaposes two elements at opposite ends of the screen, as he does when he shows a painting of Mia’s face on the side of a building and Sebastian entering the front door.

Other times, Chazelle pulls back to show his characters within a dynamic environment and lets his audience choose where to look. The use of a broad canvas also makes the musical numbers jump off the screen.

The locations and sets make “La La Land” even more of a visual treat. Chazelle finds some of the most beautiful parts of L.A. and films them with an admiring eye. From the panorama of palm trees and art deco buildings, to the dark but colorful interiors of jazz clubs, to the bird’s eye view of a twinkling L.A. at night, “La La Land” is a pleasure to behold.

In a bold move, Chazelle shoots many scenes without cutting away from the action. Using long, unbroken shots forces him to block scenes wisely and gives the actors nowhere to hide.

Thankfully, Chazelle surrounds himself with gifted artists. The dance choreography is meticulous and fluid and thrilling to watch, the camera moves effortlessly through complex scenes, and Stone and Gosling appear to never miss a step. I spent so much time smiling at the screen, I must have looked like I slept with a coat hanger in my mouth.

For all of its technical and artistic brilliance, the true star of “La La Land” is Chazelle’s screenplay, which contains the kind of dialogue typically heard in a quality drama.

Maybe people don’t put their feelings to music in the real world, but they do tell each other painful truths like, “Jazz is dying because of people like you,” which a fellow musician says to Sebastian.

They also say things that suck the air out of the room and the love out of someone’s heart. “Maybe you liked me when I was down and out because it made you feel better about yourself,” made me gasp.

When has dialogue this raw and powerful ever been paired with the sweet, airy pleasures of a musical?

This leaves the soundtrack, which includes music by Justin Hurwitz. Simply put, it’s masterful.

The songs, which range from sun-splashed show tunes to melancholic ballads, are very catchy. But they’re more than musical dressing; they’re characters in and of themselves. How and when the mournful melody of “City of Lights” is played is as important to the storytelling as the dialogue.

Some movie critics have called “La La Land” a throwback to the classic Hollywood musicals. That’s certainly true.

But “La La Land” goes deeper than that. It isn’t just a revival of films like “Singing in the Rain” (farewell, Debbie Reynolds; rest in peace) or “An American in Paris,” and it doesn’t exist merely as an homage to “Meet Me in St. Louis” or “My Fair Lady.” Rather, it’s simply a musical set in the present.

In the film, a fellow musician tells Sebastian to stop living in the past and reminds him that jazz artists like Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis were innovators. “La La Land” takes its own advice by picking up where previous musicals left off and adding a touch of irony and even sadness to the mix.

I hope you see “La La Land” in a theater. I believe you’ll be glad you did. You might even fall in love with movies all over again.

Four stars