Each year the fall festival circuit introduces a clear Best Picture front-runner to audiences — this year that entry is La La Land directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash). It is easy for these front-runners to fizzle out as more and more awards contenders are released each November and December, but La La Land seems poised to have lasting power on audiences and Academy voters alike.
Set in present day Los Angeles, the original musical follows aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) upon a tumultuous year of love and self-discovery. And while the boy-meets-girl plot has the potential to feel dated, the film’s embrace of the musical genre’s tropes and nuances create something magical: a feel-good, thoughtful, and reflective film on the notion of finding love while also finding yourself.
Chazelle’s directing is youthful and energetic, especially in his deft handling in staging the many musical numbers. The young director manages to mold together old and new to create a wholly unique film. Chazelle somehow manages to make an opening sequence set in Los Angeles’ infamous freeway traffic feel charming, personal, and, dare I say, hopeful. As the camera zooms between Angelenos stuck on the highway interchange singing “Another Day of Sun” it is clear that Chazelle knows what he’s doing. His choice to use long takes in his musical numbers is a clear homage to the allure of live theater as well as a way to give Stone, Gosling, and the rest of the ensemble the opportunity to tell their stories without the manipulation of editing.
Both Stone and Gosling here have potentially career-shifting roles as each embraces their “type” (Gosling’s smooth charmer character and Stone’s quirky best friend role) while moving beyond these stereotypes to add depth and complexity. Stone’s Mia is forced to make tough decisions throughout the film (often debated about in song) but her charm forces audiences to side with her during every emotional moment. Complementing Stone in what seems to be her best role yet is Gosling’s Sebastian — a jazz-obsessed musician trying to make ends meet. The film begins with Gosling embracing his signature jerk-ish charm but at the same time showcases his skillful portrayal of a man dealing with the conflicting love with his craft and Mia. The on-screen chemistry between the duo who returns to the screen together after Crazy, Stupid, Love is truly electric. Sure, Stone and Gosling are not the most beautiful dancers or singers in entertainment but this fact simply adds to La La Land’s charm: it’s a story about two struggling artists trying to make the best of the situation they have while staying true to themselves.
The top-notch performances are supported by an even stronger production design which visually elevates the film above the few other film musicals in recent history. Chazelle embraces a warm yet mysterious purple, pink, and orange color scheme throughout La La Land — his beautifully composed and colored shots are almost addicting to the eye. Scenes where Mia and Sebastian dance in the Hollywood Hills or on the Hermosa Beach pier offer audiences not only beautiful singing and dancing but alluring design elements that almost take the film outside of the realm of reality. The costumes, created by veteran film costume designer Mary Zophres, share the film’s larger theme of exploring the tension between old and new. Just as Sebastian and Mia are torn between classical and contemporary art forms, Zophres’ designs tow the line between old Hollywood glamour and forward-thinking design.
Most appealing to me, and I would bet to Academy voters as well, is the film’s insistence on telling a uniquely Los Angeles story. Each scene is set in iconic Los Angeles locations — from the Griffith Observatory to the Warner Bros. lot — and was entirely shot in California thanks to generous tax incentives. As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but reminisce on my own fond memories at each location. Indeed, Mia and Sebastian’s first date was shot on the very pier where I had my first kiss. Perhaps I was duped into loving the film because it served somewhat as a love letter to my hometown, but La La Land is a film that gives any moviegoer an opportunity to connect with its message. It’s a rare feel-good movie and I would say that the film’s last fifteen minutes are the most visually stunning and emotionally impactful (while undoubtedly positive and hopeful) of any film in recent memory. Sure, Chazelle’s film is not a tearjerker or aiming to answer questions of diversity which are ever-present in today’s film market, but La La Land is Chazelle doing what he does best: using his love for jazz and cinema to tell a hopefully universal story that cuts through the sometimes bleak slate of films that La La Land will be competing against come awards season.
Featured image courtesy of tiff.net