Making the fantastic feel as real as waking up in the morning. Making the real feel as fantastic as soaring through the stars. Seeing an idealized version of ourselves tinged with recognition of where we’ve come from. Seeing the camera’s eye swirl us into an illusion and a dream that we voluntarily give ourselves up to for two hours, a brief and vivid shared hallucination.
That’s the power of film and that’s the power of La La Land. It is a pure piece of cinema, fully aware of what the mechanics of film are capable of expressing and painting. Writer/Director Damien Chazelle and his stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have crafted an almost instant classic, a sort of film you know you’ve seen a brand new entry in the canon the moment you leave the theater.
Starting at the fact that the story is simple enough. Boy (Sebastian Wilder played by Ryan Gosling) meets Girl (Mia Dolan played by Emma Stone). Girl loves movies, Boy loves jazz. Boy and Girl fall in love. Boy and Girl pursue their passions and figure out how to balance that with the realities of their lives. Boy and Girl also engage in a series of rollicking old-school song and dance numbers with a whole lot of jazz flavor.
You know, your standard romance.
The movie musical is a form of film that punishes cynicism and disengagement and rewards idealism. It’s a form that’s absolutely about being willing to let yourself be swept up in the conceit and the magic of it all. People sing and dance because expression, not reality, is how we’re telling this tale.
This is the guiding principle of La La Land. Drawing on the classic Hollywood romances and MGM musicals that it namechecks as well as the musicals of the French New Wave (most notably Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), the film chooses to ground a real romance in flights of fancy, making its huge expressionistic flourishes have all the more impact.
To be fair, those flourishes have as much impact as they do because they’re extraordinarily well-done. Chazelle’s confidence from Whiplash feels almost ten fold here, his camera gliding through immaculately composed sets and shots from almost moment one. In fact, from moment one, the opening musical number “Another Day of Sun” is done in a single shot and it announces what Chazelle’s intentions are almost instantly.
From there he never lets up. La La Land is a series of glorious and wonderfully made scenes that add up to a stunning dramatic whole. Each feels purposeful and propulsive with every inch of detail serving the grander picture. I could write forever on his use of lighting alone, the way they pull back to give a feeling, the feeling of being isolated or being connected with only one other person in the whole room or the snap back to reality. The point is that the craft on display here is like almost nothing we’ve seen in years, old forms made real and new.
Form that of course serves function. La La Land is using its heightened reality to break down defenses, essentially. To force you to let the film in so it strikes all the closer and all the harder. It’s often a flight of fancy, letting its leading pair dance among the stars, letting a group of aspiring artists break into song and dance on an LA overpass. But that fancy is serving a real thematic purpose.
For all its nostalgia, La La Land is a film for the young. It asks the questions of youth: What if my dreams don’t happen? What will I have to leave behind if they do? And its answers aren’t necessarily the ones we want to hear. It’s not looking back on that time with fondness, it’s looking back on that time as it really can feel, as it really does end up being.
La La Land is bittersweet and beautiful and it understands all the little things that it can mean to be an artist. The people who are part of our journey and who guide us along. La La Land is a film about what the heart wants and what that can get us.
And speaking of the people, I have to talk about Emma Stone in this film. This is a two-hander and Gosling acquits himself incredibly admirably, playing with charm and just a fair bit of complexity in the way he compromises and moves along to his dream. But this is Stone’s film and she is extraordinary. Stone wears her slow transformation and her pain and her joys so incredibly well and in every frame. The way she begins to give herself to the music more and more is wonderful. I hate to get into this, but there is a moment in this film where you can see her win the Oscar, and she deserves every bit of that gold.
A lot of people talk about leaving this film on Cloud Nine and I certainly understand that reaction. If I’m being honest, there’s no way I wasn’t going to love this movie. I’m still one of the few sticking up for Whiplash and I think Stone and Gosling are one of cinema’s best pairs. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one of the greatest films ever made in my estimation and I think the musical is one of the purest and best forms of cinema.
But I think my reaction was one more of awe. This is a beautiful and incredible work, staggering and alive and passionate and affecting and the kind of thing just makes me believe movies are a good thing. This is the kind of film that gets me out of bed in the morning, the kind that makes me feel alive. The kind that breaks down the walls and makes you believe in the magic of the camera’s eye and the people and the storytellers who wield it.
This is going to be a classic. A film that rests in the hearts of a lot of young idealists, in posters on their dorm room walls and shout outs in their dating profiles. One that spawns imitators and people attempting to reach the heights. See it now, not only to say you were there, but because in this year, it will show you that now more than ever, film is a living, breathing, vital thing.