2016 MIDDLEBURG FILM FESTIVAL: It is extremely difficult to live up to any expectations, especially when they’re set by yourself in your own psyche. It can sometimes be nearly impossible for one of the most anticipated films of the year to match those expectations. Damien Chazelle‘s highly anticipated follow-up to his Oscar-winning “Whiplash” was not just looming to moviegoers, it was downright necessary in our cinematic landscape. A modern day musical against the backdrop of Hollywood and starring Academy Award nominees Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone? Yes, please.
“La La Land” is full of devotion and appreciation, not only for the genre of musicals but the craft that comes along with it. Chazelle is set on bringing the musicals back to the forefront, with not only paying homage to the old Hollywood gems but with a fresh, contemporary feel. When a director sets out on such a task, there could be instances of sacrifice that the filmmaker makes. Sometimes it’s the actors, other times it could be production value, but in this case, the development of characters may have been his shortcoming.
“La La Land” tells the story of Sebastian (Gosling), a jazz pianist who falls for Mia (Stone), an aspiring actress in Los Angeles. As the two chase their dreams, the stability of their relationship begins to unhinge during a year’s time.
When talking about a musical genre, the songs always take precedent and Chazelle’s spare no expense. In particular, three (the opening and closing numbers, along with “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”) capture the heart and soul of the picture. If and when the film wins multiple Oscars, you can look no further than those three numbers to discover just why that happened. Other numbers like “Start a Fire,” which is performed by Oscar- and Grammy-winning artist John Legend, or “City of Stars,” a recurring number throughout, are full of fun and festivities. No shortage of foot tapping and beat humming in this department.
Where the film really breathes and is adored is in the work of Emma Stone. As touched upon earlier, her big number “Audition,” is one of those movie moments we will remember for ages. Your heart gets tightened, the frog enters your throat, and as soon as you know it, the single tear streams down your face. Stone sums up not just the film’s underlying message, but the hopes and dreams of ourselves. It’s truly her gift to cinema. With that said, she is bogged down early on in the script by an underwhelming and even at times a bit of annoying character development. Stone’s own charm can only go so far before she needs to dig in and offer more. She succeeds with a powerful grace.
Ryan Gosling’s singing chops are just as smooth as we suspected based on the trailer for “City of Stars.” While people were afraid he could fall into Russell Crowe-Les Miserables territory, he manages his notes with a sophistication. In what Gosling decides to bring to the role from an acting perspective, there are times he seems to be just phoning it in. A lot of what he brings to Sebastian is similar and not something we haven’t seen him do before in films like “Blue Valentine” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” When Chazelle gives him the opportunity to really open himself up, and Gosling makes the decision to challenge himself, he’s quite spectacular.
The aforementioned John Legend is as soulful as you’d expect someone of his considerable talent to be while Rosemarie DeWitt and J.K. Simmons are regulated to cameos as Sebastian’s soon-to-be married older sister and bar owning boss, respectively.
From a technical standpoint, “La La Land” is a movie about Hollywood, made for Hollywood and captures the essence of Hollywood. It celebrates the movies, and everything we love about them. David Wasco‘s production design with Sandy Reynolds-Wasco‘s set decoration builds the world, all-encompassing with the wit and dour spirit that Los Angeles can place upon its dreamers. Costume designer Mary Zophres keeps her players in present day but while allowing their own sensibilities to feel like a second coming of the roaring ’20s.
Oscar-winning editor Tom Cross cuts the film efficiently, albeit not consistently. The second half of “La La Land” is exponentially and undeniably better than the first half. It’s as though he fell asleep at the wheel before waking up before the car went barreling into a ditch. All the sound work is just as superb as you would come to know and expect in any modern day musical.
Chazelle holds on to his natural abilities that he’s showed us already, and that we’ve all loved. He speaks about being in a bad place when he wrote “Whiplash,” and how “La La Land” was the movie he always wanted to make. He appreciates the aura of music and jazz, lingering in its time without becoming overtly copycat. The natural comparisons will pour in for “Singin’ in the Rain,” “West Side Story” and just about any other big time movie musical you can think of. There’s one thing you can’t deny “La La Land,” however, and that is its own originality. It feeds off of itself, delivering to the audience a zealous, comprehensive piece. Chazelle’s film examines the harsh, unforgiving creature of Hollywood. It chews up its victims, spits them onto the streets of Sunset Boulevard, and they limp along back to the hometown from which they came.
“La La Land” is not perfect, not by any stretch. Simply put, the opening number will get you in the mood for an outstanding evening. You’ll power through the rest of Act 1, everything pre-John Legend’s entry. Once you enter Act II, the film really opens up. Nonetheless, this is undoubtedly a film that the 7,000+ membership of the Academy will embrace. While others can find problems within its own compounds, it’s an extremely difficult film to outright hate. That’s always a safe, steady place to sit in the awards season.
“La La Land” is distributed by Summit Entertainment and is scheduled to be released on Dec. 9 (limited) and Dec. 16 (wide).