Review: Dizzying ‘La La Land’ the year’s best movie
Hands down the year’s best movie. Hands down!
“La La Land” is a gift, a delightful, charming, vibrant movie musical that beams with life, love, zest and zeal. It’s not only the best movie of the year, it’s the best movie in years, a glorious love letter to Los Angeles, the movies, musicals, young love, ambition, heartbreak and the particular talents of stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle, still a month shy of his 32nd birthday, goes all in on his second feature, which follows 2014’s “Whiplash.” That was a small, contained story about a jazz drummer and his vindictive instructor that managed to nab a nomination for Best Picture. Here he goes big time with a Technicolor daydream, and the leap from his first to second feature is reminiscent of the jump Quentin Tarantino made from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Pulp Fiction,” or the one that Paul Thomas Anderson made from “Hard Eight” to “Boogie Nights.” He’s entered rare air in the filmmaker sphere and is now free to do whatever he wants.
And he does so on the backs of classic Hollywood musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Meet Me in St. Louis,” which “La La Land” pays homage to in spirit, style and with a bright, primary color-emphasizing visual palate. It takes place in modern day Los Angeles, but outside of a few smartphones and a proliferation of Toyota Priuses, it could take place in the 1950s.
Emma Stone marvels as Mia, a twentysomething barista with dreams of being an actress, and the soul of the film rests within the deep wells of her giant green eyes. Stone has been nominated for an Oscar once before, for Best Supporting Actor for her ferocious role in “Birdman,” and if she doesn’t win this time around she has cause to demand a recount.
Gosling is magical opposite Stone, his on-screen partner from both 2011’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” and 2013’s “Gangster Squad.” He plays Sebastian, a jazz obsessive who dreams of opening his own club but pays the bills playing in crummy side gigs around L.A.. The art of jazz is dying, he argues to anyone in earshot, and he’s put it on his own shoulders to save the music from extinction.
These two young dreamers bump into each other, first on a freeway overpass (after a delirious, head-spinning opening number that drops viewers immediately into “La La Land’s” stylized, reality-bending world) and later at a bar where Sebastian is playing Christmas carols for tips. He goes off-script and hammers out something of his own, and the bar manager (Detroit native J.K. Simmons, who won a best supporting Oscar for “Whiplash”) promptly fires him on the spot. Sebastian storms out of the bar, grazing Mia as he blows past her.
Later the pair meets properly at a poolside party and their courtship begins. Gosling and Stone have a natural, buoyant chemistry together, and it shines as bright as L.A., which acts as the third lead in the movie. The city is shot to be alive with romance and possibility, and rarely has it looked better on screen.
“La La Land” is a musical, but not the type where every line of dialogue is expressed in song. Gosling and Stone both have raw, natural voices, unpolished and imperfect, and their delivery adds authenticity to their characters. Because they don’t sound like chart-topping pop stars, you believe them that much more as real people.
Chazelle follows Mia and Sebastian’s relationship over the course of a year, staging the high highs as well as the difficulties of young romance. Both Mia and Sebastian come to a crossroads where they have to choose their careers or each other, decisions which lead to a bit of whiplash of their own, which Chazelle plays like a bittersweet hangover.
“La La Land” is a joyous celebration, but it also manages to sucker punch viewers with its melancholy undertones. It works on both levels, and that push-pull elevates the film from merely excellent to the level of a classic.
“La La Land” is a special, special experience, and movies like this don’t come around too often.
‘La La Land’
Rated PG-13 for some language
Running time: 128 minutes
Watch Adam Graham review “La La Land” and the rest of this week’s new releases with Lee Thomas on “CriticLee Speaking” at 6:30 p.m. Friday and 9:30 a.m. Saturday on Fox 2 Detroit!