TIFF Journal: ‘La La Land’

'La La Land'

Movie Rating:

4

Even as a crusty cynic, it was remarkably difficult to shake off the charms of ‘La La Land’. A mixture of homage to the oldest and corniest of Hollywood musicals as well as a modern parable about the perils of chasing dreams, this is a beautiful concoction.

The film is a magical cinematic trip both charming and devastating. Writer/director Damien Chazelle had a chance to do something bold following the success of his debut feature ‘Whiplash’, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. The movie is a charmer with just enough bite to coax even those not totally enamored with musicals out of their shell. It’s also pretty much guaranteed to be a major awards contender this year.

After opening with a stunning single-take number on the L.A. Freeway to set the tone, ‘La La Land’ settles into a story that could be pulled from a 1930s Busby Berkeley movie. Emma Stone plays a wannabe actress and coffee-slinger in Hollywood, chasing dreams and getting crushed by reality. Ryan Gosling is a jazz obsessive who dreams of opening his own club even though no one listens to the music anymore. They meet and hate each other. Then meet again and again. Flirtation, attraction, love, you know the drill. It’s punctuated by a series of beautiful song and dance routines shot in long takes to emphasize the work and beauty. Split into sections by seasons, the tale rises then falls. The music seems to drain out on the dark times, very deliberately. The story is surprisingly modern and human, just punctuated by an old-fashioned brand of fantasy.

The movie is a technical stunner, filmed in blinding colors to feel like a 1950s Technicolor marvel, yet bursting with HD detail. The songs are catchy, the choreography (both the dancers and the camerawork) extraordinary. At the center, Stone and Gosling are a perfect pair. They’ve partnered before, but here their personas shine and chemistry explodes. Stone is filled with hope and punished by reality. Gosling is bitterly sarcastic with the heart of a romantic. The performances dance together perfectly in ways literal and otherwise. Romanticism runs high. It’s a date movie filled with elation. Yet, as Chazelle proved in ‘Whiplash’, he’s no easy sentimentalist. There’s more here than a simple song and dance routine. Call it traditionally non-traditional.

Granted, those who downright hate the musical form won’t find anything here to alleviate their feelings. However, those who are merely tired by the cozy and predictable conventions of the contemporary form may be won back. Chazelle might be in love with old musicals and fills his film with homage, but he also pushes the human story out of fantasy and avoids all the tedious over-cutting that MTV’ed out recent Hollywood examples of the format needlessly. This is a beautiful movie that revives the traditional movie musical while pushing it gently forward. Expect to leave the theater with a big smile that you didn’t bring in with you.

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