Every once in a while, a movie comes along that changes everything, one that shakes things up from its very foundations, while injecting a new life into that particular medium of storytelling. In fact, this has happened throughout history of cinema. Whenever the film industry went out of original ideas or continued churning the same formulaic narratives for far too long, there always emerged a fresh breed of filmmakers who took it upon themselves to bring the change and, in the process, heralded a new era of motion pictures.
There is no denying that 2016 will go down as the year when horror reigned supreme on the big screen after ages but one still cannot ignore the dream of an up-n-coming filmmaker who wished to make an original contemporary musical in the style of old Hollywood classics yet more forward-looking & grounded in reality. And not only did this gifted talent manage to make his dream come true but did so with such effectiveness that the resulting film ultimately breathed an air of freshness into the genre that had long been dismissed as part of a bygone era.
His name is Damien Chazelle and the dream he recently turned into reality is his latest film, La La Land. Already regarded as one of the most promising talents to look out for after he set the film stage on fire a couple years ago with the electric, explosive & extraordinary jazz-filled freight train that was Whiplash, Chazelle follows his sophomore effort up with a musical that pays a heartfelt tribute to all the notable examples of its genre that played an instrumental role in its creation yet carves an original path to separate itself from the norm, thus assuring all that he’s for real.
Set in Los Angeles, the story of La La Land follows the lives of an aspiring actress who serves lattes in between auditions and a jazz pianist who manages to scrape by playing in small gigs. Numerous chance encounters between the two result in them falling in love with each other but when success begins to mount in their professional endeavours, the dreams they have managed to keep alive in each other all this time through love & mutual support begins to fall apart, which in turn forces them to confront their relationship and make tough decisions along the way.
Written & directed by Damien Chazelle, La La Land opens with a richly coloured & gorgeously choreographed song that is shot in a single unbroken take lasting six minutes and then follows it up by introducing our protagonists to both the viewers & each other. Chazelle’s kinetic direction retains all the zest & passion that was evident in his last feature but also exhibits much more confidence in his abilities as a storyteller. What he has skilfully crafted here is something that’s both nostalgic & new, and it doesn’t really matter if you get all the homages & references because the story is rewarding regardless of that.
The screenplay is no slouch either, for the narrative follows a seasonal pattern, starting with winter that focuses on the professional stasis of our characters and takes it from there as we see their relationship blossom as the story progresses until the harsh realities of life take over. Unlike Whiplash, which was aggressive throughout its runtime, La La Land is much calmer and more willing to celebrate the lovely moments as they come along although beneath the surface, they do share similarities in themes & characterisation as both films are about the very struggle of being an artist and the sacrifices made along the road to success.
Chazelle borrows the template of an old Hollywood musical and reinvigorates it in ways that is going to influence its genre in the years ahead. La La Land retains all the characteristics of an old-school musical, brimming with endless charm, incessant warmth & joyful celebrations, but Chazelle is bold enough to root this extravaganza in reality and let it reverberate with the viewers on a much deeper & personal level. Where musicals of the past offered its audience an escape from their tumultuous lives with its unrealistic romance & happy endings, this one is aware that not all dreams come true in real-life but lets them know that there’s still a new surprise waiting on the other side.
The technical aspects are expertly executed, as each element works in harmony with the other to improve & enhance the overall experience. Production design team does well to impart a nostalgic feeling to the contemporary locations of Los Angeles. Cinematography makes ingenious use of camera as many sequences & musical numbers are filmed in one continuous take with constant adjustment of lighting & set pieces in the background to reroute the viewers’ attention towards the central figure in those moments. Editing unfolds its 128 minutes narrative at differing pace, opting for montages at times while letting the plot simmer when the occasion calls for it, and all the choices work out in the film’s favour.
Soundtrack becomes all the more essential in a musical but Justin Hurwitz more than lives up to the challenge of composing both the score & songs that are as memorable & catchy as they are relevant to the plot. Every musical number only assists in developing the characters’ arcs except for the opening song which is an ode to not just Los Angeles but also those dreamers also who move there with aspirations of making it big. All the songs & dance segments radiate an immense sense of joy & an intoxicating feeling, which is all the more uplifted by its first-rate choreography & exquisite photography. The film features so many instant-classic moments that it’s really difficult to choose a favourite although “A Lovely Night” scene is the one I loved most, for everything about it is perfect.
Coming to the performances, La La Land features a perfect lead in Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone with John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons & others in supporting roles. Few, if any, will dispute the fact that Gosling & Stone make up for an ideal Hollywood couple, for their chemistry with each other is so natural, effortless & convincing that it definitely is one for the ages. On top of that, their on-screen magic really makes it easy for the audience to see & imagine them as a couple and invest in their relationship. It is a terrific casting by all means and the impressive performances these talented actors deliver, both individually & as a duo, truly elevates an already awe-inspiring feature to an even higher level, and they are finely supported by the remainder of the cast.
Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz musician who earns his living by playing in local gigs and dreams of opening his own jazz club and the actor’s innate ability to express more without ever saying much plays an instrumental role in shaping his character but what makes his act even more admirable is that Gosling went all the way to play Sebastian from inside-out, even learning piano to perform all the piano sequences all by himself. And still, Emma Stone outshines him with a powerful & emotionally resonant rendition of Mia and absolutely nails it in the film’s final song by bringing all her experience into play. The chemistry between Mia & Sebastian is the core ingredient that makes this story work and both the actors make it look so easy that it’s magical in every sense of the word.
On an overall scale, La La Land is this season’s most dazzling movie experience and is undoubtedly a musical masterpiece for the ages. Bursting with passion, overflowing with emotions, and intimately capturing the magic of cinema in all its glory, it is an irresistible, inescapable & infatuating rhapsody that’s brought to life with incredible restraint & precision artistry, and promises its viewers a toe-tapping journey that they’re going to cherish for a long time. It brought a smile on my face from its opening moments and left me grinning from start to finish, and that indeed is something that doesn’t happen very often when you go to the movies these days. Bringing musicals back to life, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is an utter fantasy-turned-reality that asks its audience to dream more urgently, live more fervently & love more deeply. In short, they don’t make films like this anymore. Delightfully recommended.