Whoops, I guess I lied when I said I won’t be going to a theater anytime soon. Turns out I’ll be going out to the movies more times in December than I have all year. My family makes a tradition of going out to watch a movie on Christmas Day, and this year we were torn, so we all got together and watched the trailers for a handful of new releases and then voted on which we’d want to watch. The options were Sing, Moana, Lion, and La La Land. Based on the title of this post, I’m sure you’re smart enough to deduce what we ended up seeing.
La La Land is the third full length film from writer/ director Damien Chazelle. “Hmmm… Damien Chazelle, how come that name sounds kind of familiar?” I hear you say. Maybe it’s because he wrote the cartoonish Grand Piano, or the dour and intense 10 Cloverfield Lane. Maybe it’s because his last directing effort was a little movie about drumming and throwing chairs called Whiplash. Chazelle has only been on the radar for a handful of years, but apparently he’s only able to crank out the hits.
La La Land is a very simple movie with a very simple premise. Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz pianist aspiring to own his own jazz club and keep jazz alive and thriving in the L.A. scene. Emma Stone plays Mia, an aspiring but struggling actress who is trying to navigate her way through the Hollywood minefield to make a name for herself. They meet, and fall in love. Life ensues.
I’ll be honest and frank right up front here: La La Land is one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. I haven’t seen too many 2016 releases, but of the ones I have, La La Land has firmly planted itself near the top of the list. Before I explain myself here, I have a couple of questions for you: Do you remember when movies were fun? When they had engaging characters and interesting conflicts that you cared about? How about exciting camera work and original scripts? Yeah, I almost forgot about all that, too. Well guess what, La La Land offers all of that in spades.
The first thing that struck me right away when watching La La Land was the visual style and flair. Chazelle’s work in Whiplash was on point with frantic editing, and intensive camera work that reflected the music and environment that were being portrayed in the movie. Here, Chazelle refines that style a little bit, and experiments with long takes and tracking shots to showcase the incredibly focused directing and detailed planning that when into every scene and every shot. A lot of the musical numbers (yes, this is a musical, more on that later) required a lot of planning, and I’m sure took a long time to get all the final takes. While the dance choreography wasn’t too over the top, some sequences done in one take could have been hastily slapped together with multiple shots, but were much more effective when shown in one unbroken shot.
I have to commend Chazelle and his crew for how intricate some of these scenes were, with surprising camera movements and dramatic lighting changes used to help convey the characters’ emotions and bring an almost theater performance-like vibe to a lot of the movie’s big scenes. I think Chazelle comes from the Spielberg school of long takes or one shots (also known as “oners”) where he believes in making sure the camera’s movements are almost unnoticeable. A lot of directors who take pride in or are well known for their oners typically draw a lot of attention to the scenes where only one shot is used, making it a big spectacle of showcasing to the audience how good they are at coordinating a massive Rube-Goldberg of actors and crew members. No matter how insanely cool it is that in The Raid 2 they pulled off a tracking shot out of one moving car through another, the only thing you can think about while watching that shot is how they managed to pull it off. While that shot is unimpeachable on a technical level, it immediately draws you right out of the film. None of the long shots in La La Land ever did that to me. I think the director has enough sense in him to make sure that his long takes are impressive enough to leave a mark on the audience, but they don’t overstay their welcome.
I also have to quickly gush about the use of colour in La La Land in that, there was some. Maybe it’s because the last films I saw were Rogue One, The Purge: Anarchy, and Green Room, but I’m pretty tired of movies whose colour palettes include concrete grey, rocky grey, gun metal grey, black, cloudy grey, and dark, muted green in the case of the aptly named Green Room. La La Land didn’t suffer from neon-hypersaturation as seen in Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest films and those made by his copycats, but every colour had just enough punch to pop out on screen. I had forgotten how much fun a movie could be to look at after the hundred million horror films I’ve seen over the last year.
Alright, now lets get to the stuff that nine out of ten people actually care about: the characters and the story. Seb and Mia aren’t particularly complex characters, but they’re given defined dreams and aspirations early on in the film, and we as an audience get to see how they progress through life moving towards and away from those dreams. Mia wants to be an actress, and is currently grinding it out through audition after audition to try and break into a role any bigger than a bit part. Seb, fed up with playing ’80s pop covers and jazz standards for other people wants to open up a jazz club where he can play whatever he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants. The problem with that is that Seb needs to build the funds necessary to open the club, and has to take gigs he’s not too thrilled about in order to do it. I think La La Land does a great job of showing what it’s like being a creative type in a big city (or any city, really), where you work constantly for someone else just to get the money you need to pursue your own goals. Any creative person with enough talent to produce good art has probably had the opportunity to join a project that pays well but isn’t 100% aligned with their goals or passions. And while pursuing a project like that might be okay in the short term, most artists in that situation won’t be able to grind it out for the long term and stay truly happy and fulfilled. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone both absolutely kill it as Seb and Mia, and Chazelle’s script is tight enough that all of them come together to make wholly believable characters. All the characters act and talk like real humans with real problems and real emotions, and that just sells La La Land to me even more.
Therein lies one of the reasons I absolutely love La La Land. This film, while being a totally accessible and fun, bombastic musical that anyone can enjoy, is made for creatives. For dreamers. People who aspire to be an actor or a musician, but see the insurmountable mountain known as normal life between them and their dream. La La Land is a film that dares the audience to dream and to act on those dreams. I’d go as far to say that La La Land is one of the most inspiring films I’ve ever seen. Not inspiring in the Oscar-bait based on the unforgettable, inspiring, breathtaking true story way, but inspiring in that when I walked out of the theater all I wanted to do was make stuff. I wanted to pick up an instrument and record music. I wanted to write a script and build a set and pick up a camera and make my own film. It’s been four days since I first saw La La Land, and I still feel this way. Regardless of whether or not you’ve made a good movie, making a film in this day and age that people still think intensely about days after seeing it means you did something right. It just so happens that Damien Chazelle made a film that sticks with you for days after, and is a technical and visual marvel with great actors and a rock solid script.
I’ve still got a few movies released this year that I’m interested in checking out (some which I’m embarrassed I haven’t seen yet) but compared to the 2016 films I have seen so far, La La Land is definitely one of the best. It’s currently tumbling around in my Top 3 films of the year along with The Witch and Deadpool. I’ve still got to fully process Arrival, and my shameful list of unwatched movies includes Hell or High Water, Swiss Army Man, and Kubo and the Two Strings, so who knows what my best-of list for 2016 will eventually look like. All I do know is that I absolutely love La La Land. Go see it if you haven’t already, and if you have, see it again.