City of Stars
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
La La Land is the cinematic equivalent of the word “infectious” (in a good way). Damien Chazelle’s classical Hollywood musical refuses to loosen its grip on the audience at any given moment, no matter how derivative some of the few questionable plot choices may seem. The opening shots seem to allude to the infamous Los Angeles smog before wafting down towards another infamy of one of cinema’s most famed cities: the traffic. Chazelle’s camera swims as if in a harmonious daze before it focuses on a woman in a yellow dress and then one of the most giddying musical sequences in recent cinematic history erupts to the forefront. How he filmed musical number on a stretch of Los Angeles freeway is remarkable in and of itself, but the perfectly choreographed sequence bursting with dozens of performers and stunts makes it all the more so. That cold open was anything but cold, a sequence indicative of what Chazelle has achieved with a film that could have gone wrong at any moment, indulging in cliché after cliché because of the energy that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling bring to the endeavor. The musical numbers are catchy enough to where the necessity for a strong story could have been dismissed as being more of a clichéd concern. The history of jazz that is so thoroughly enshrined within black American culture could have been thoroughly whitewashed (let’s face it, I don’t expect much from Hollywood in this regard), but it’s kept intact even though Gosling is the lead. La La Land in a sense embodies so many expectations of what it ought to be as a film on the surface that it becomes genuinely thrilling when it proves to be much more than those expectations. The poignancy as the film closes especially is emblematic of what Chazelle could have done but what he chose to do instead. It’s seasoned and complicated and the poignancy that rises from that combination is so often lost in romantic films that it’s beyond refreshing to see that be imbued in a film where one least expects it.
The script, in spite of Chazelle finding the ability to find a way to subvert the romantic genre on the silver screen, has a few troubles that prevent the film from being as perfect as it almost becomes. At a couple of junctures it seems that Chazelle ran into the problem of creating conflicts in order for the ending to achieve the poignancy he was aiming for but one of those conflicts in particular seemed so contrived that it almost took attention away from the engrossing drama that had been unfolding to that point. Before we get there, however, the film begins with the two perspectives of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Mia is stuck in the audition phase of her career, the phase so many young aspirants go through as they’re trying to make their way through life. She’s working as a barista to pay the bills, a temporary job that looks more and more like something she is going to be doing for longer than she would like because none of her auditions were going her way. She doesn’t even get the chance to complete many of her auditions because she’s seen as disposable, a non-entity that is less important than a sandwich. Her understandable, relatable feelings of frustration with every passing moment only seem to press on her a seeming reality that she simply is one of those people who dreams and dreams but is never able to fulfill those dreams and turn into a palpable reality. All she wants is to have that feeling of fulfillment, of a success that she sees in the face and body language of an actress who walks into her shop and grabs coffee to go. It’s a moment that seems further and further out of her reach the harder she tries.
Sebastian is a lover of the traditional forms of jazz, the soulful music born in the black culture of New Orleans. The traditions of the great Miles Davis, Solomon Burke, and Billie Holliday were being lost amidst the loud cacophony of let’s say, auto-tuning and the seventeen singing reality competitions out there. His favorite jazz club had been turned into a samba and tapas combo bar, a bastardization of both. Sebastian had jumped headlong into some venture where he had lost his money and he felt aimless and frustrated until an opportunity opened up. Here was a chance for him to garner the funds so he could start on the fulfillment of his dream. But as one would expect but what is also realistic is that he gets caught up in that other job, the one that proves to be more lucrative at least in comparison to his lack of a stable occupation. Sebastian’s character development at this juncture is the most clichéd development from Chazelle’s script but thankfully it doesn’t occupy so much of the film’s timeframe so as to become maddeningly maudlin. The underlying sentiment of being stuck between two worlds, however, is painfully real. Both Mia’s and Sebastian’s journeys underlie the reality of how difficult it is to make your dreams come true in the face of adversity, how difficult it is to remove that sinking feeling that we need to ensure long-term financial stability over pursuing what makes us happy. The unfortunate cycle is that often individuals choose the former for completely understandable and logical reasons and they become so stuck in that cycle that they never get to pursue those dreams in the first place. It’s a risk to break from that cycle but sometimes, taking that risk is the most vital thing for someone to do.
That act of acting upon the risk is inherently tied to the film’s motif of the importance of time. Sometimes the time just isn’t right for something and as obnoxious as that answer can be when one is trying to find the right answers, there’s a certain truth to that. It’s a certain truth that isn’t used quite properly in romantic films but Chazelle uses it to great effect, bringing a germane feeling to that truth and the sense of time that is so inherent to it. It helps considerably that Stone and Gosling are utter perfection in their performances here, imbuing their characters with such a seeming lack of effort that in less charming hands, it would have become simply obnoxious. Chazelle’s script is largely fantastic, working constantly and crucially without seemingly going into overdrive to become something more than what people would expect. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography, brought to life beginning with the loud “Cinemascope” banner at the beginning, does a brilliant job of mixing sharp cinematography with a filming style that evokes just the right amount of nostalgia from the past and mixing it with the brightness of the present. Justin Hurwitz’s music is La La Land’s not so secret triumph, bursting from scene to scene with such a thoroughly ecstatic exuberance that it becomes impossible not to get swept up in the rising crescendo (good luck getting “Another Day of Sun” out of your head). The resplendent music arguably does transcend the film, but it is such an integral part of the film that that dichotomy, when it does arise, doesn’t detract as much from the wonderful moviegoing experience as it otherwise might have done. Chazelle’s contribution to musical cinema in La La Land proves to be, against all the expectations, as every bit as delectable and delicious as, let’s say, a chicken on a stick.
Title: La La Land
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Produced by: Fred Berger, Gary Gilbert, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons
Music by: Justin Hurwitz
Cinematography by: Linus Sandgren
Edited by: Tom Cross
Production Company(s): Gilbert Films, Impostor Pictures, Marc Platt Productions
Distributed by: Summit Entertainment
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Dates: December 9, 2016 (United States)
Image Courtesy: Collider
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