THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"LA LA LAND"
La La Land fills your soul with joy and happiness.There is so much pleasure bursting from every corner that you can barely believe it's a real thing. Writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) was born to make this movie, which finds inspiration in classic big-screen musicals. While the influences are visible, Chazelle shapes something original from them, creating a dazzling work that you want to see again the very second it's over.
The movie begins on a gridlocked Los Angeles freeway. The drivers of the various cars suddenly emerge and break into an elaborate song-and-dance number. From there, we are introduced to the two main characters. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who doesn't want to play by the rules. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who works in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot to pay the bills. They meet, fall in love, and support one another's career goals. When their professional paths start to pull them in different directions, Sebastian and Mia have to figure out whether show biz success and romantic happiness can go hand-in-hand.
La La Land conveys much of the story's emotion via musical sequences. For instance, on a date to a planetarium, Sebastian and Mia suddenly become airborne, morphing into the constellations projected on the dome as they elegantly dance together. Later on, Mia lands an important audition, which we see as her singing a song about the hopes and dreams of performers looking for a break. There is a tap dance number, as well as a spectacular grand finale that weaves the characters through various sets in an emotionally resonant summation of what they mean to each other. All of it pays homage to the musicals of yesteryear, replicating their unabashed desire to entertain.
The choreography, music, and cinematography in these scenes is breathtaking. Chazelle favors longer shots, with little editing. That means it's up to the actors to add the humanity to all the technical components. Stone and Gosling, who acquit themselves nicely in the singing and dancing department, do just that. Because they have starred together before in Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad, the chemistry between them is genuine. They invest every musical number with heart, drawing us in with their showmanship, but also with the manner in which they create a convincing bond between Sebastian and Mia.
They're phenomenal in the non-musical parts, as well. Gosling is very funny as the guy who doesn't want to “sell out,” yet still wants people to hear his music. The arc Sebastian takes is a painfully truthful one that touches on the eternal battle between artistic integrity and commercial acceptance. Stone, meanwhile, brings much empathy to Mia, who struggles with constant rejection of her talent. Her audition scene is as memorable for the heartbreak Stone imbues it with as it is for the clever conceptual element.
Every musical number puts a smile on your face. They are conceived with such cheerful enthusiasm that there's no resisting their charms. La La Land is not, however, a stunt. Chazelle isn't interested in proving his own cleverness or engaging in self-congratulatory show-offishness. There's a real story being told here – one about people for whom chasing a dream is as vital as breathing. Mia and Sebastian don't expect love. When they find it, each must decide whether it can hold equal footing with their respective show business aspirations. Their journey to figure this out provides equal parts laughter and drama. The story must be told in musical form, because the power of performance is embedded in the film's DNA.
In some regards, watching La La Land is an exhausting experience. Two straight hours of swooning tires a person out. An old saying applied to movies goes, “They don't make 'em like they used to.” That may be true, although Chazelle's film is proof that you can make 'em in a fresh, invigorating new way. La La Land takes the vibe of a Golden Age movie musical and sticks it into a very modern show biz story.
The end result is nothing short of magical.
( out of four)
La La Land is rated PG-13 for some language. The running time is 2 hours and 8 minutes.
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