The title of LA LA LAND hints at so much of the film you’re about to watch: LA stands for Los Angeles, the city featured beautifully here; la la is a song thing, hinting at the fact that this film is a musical; and when someone says you’re in la la land, it means you’re in a dreamlike state, just like this film. The rest of the film isn't necessarily as complex as the layered title would suggest, but LA LA LAND makes up for it with subtle nuances and details throughout that add to the larger facade here, one of upbeat and jaunty fun, while still retaining a visceral core that will affect you deeply by the end.
LA LA LAND follows Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who isn’t aspiring too well because casting people refuse to take any unknowns seriously, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who dreams of eventually starting his own jazz club but for now must settle for Christmas music in restaurants. LA LA LAND charts Mia and Sebastian’s slow but wonderful fall for each other, as well as the ups and downs of their relationship, mainly the conflict each person has when reality interferes with love.
Blue is the color of dreams in LA LA LAND. From the opening shot -- a pan down from the gorgeous blue sky of Los Angeles -- to the luscious blue lighting of jazz clubs and L.A. sunsets alike, Chazelle holds a precise control over his color palette that adds a certain beauty to the film, even more so when the red of reality is juxtaposed with this blue dream. And speaking of dreams, this seems like Chazelle’s dream project. His first feature, the student-film like GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH, is basically a devolved version of LA LA LAND. His breakout film WHIPLASH provided him all the resources he needed to make this nostalgic picture, one that literally starts with the statement “filmed in CinemaScope.” In the digital age, this statement is somewhat of a lie -- but hey, can’t he dream?
This is also an extraordinarily romantic movie (please go to this film with a significant other of some kind, you won’t regret it); it romanticizes the Hollywood musical and the charm of modern love into an old-fashioned contemporary affair. There’s always love in the air, most obviously through the staggering chemistry of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (their third pairing as lovers), but also through the passion on display in almost every character. Sebastian speaks of jazz as if it is his one true soulmate, Mia is a passionate actress despite the job not always reciprocating her feelings, and Damien Chazelle’s direction is a love letter to cinema itself. In a grandiose, stylistic approach to the musical, Chazelle pulls out all his stops for a continuous series of long takes that flow with grace and elegance, in a way dancing to the rhythm that cinema can conjure up when done effectively, as it is here. This approach is so much fun to watch, and the precision with which Chazelle tackles both complicated dance numbers and the still, extremely well-written show stoppers lends to the film in such a wonderful way.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, despite not exactly being Broadway stars (theater friends I respect and admire who saw Stone during her Broadway run of CABARET weren’t very kind), make their singing and dancing work pretty well; still, great acting by both is their true power. Other stars make the most of small roles, ranging from John Legend to J.K. Simmons, who must really like this Chazelle kid after he got him his Oscar in 2014.
LA LA LAND is an inspirational film. I went home after a lucky early screening and felt inspired to write about the film because it’s just so filled with love and heart. It made me love film even more. I’m willing to look past my nitpicks of some occasional lip-syncing issues as well as some on-the-nose dialogue that directs a potential criticism of the film -- being too imbued in nostalgia -- directly at us, because this is a film about pursuing your passions. It’s the best version of that, too; inspirational films are normally worn out after a day or two for me. I’m still reeling from the charm of this beauty, just as I was leaving the movie theater almost three weeks ago. Most films make me want to smile, but this one makes me want to dance.