We fade in on a congested Los Angeles highway, traffic is at a standstill and the horns are honking away. As we move through the traffic we watch as commuters sing along with their radios and wait angrily for the cars to begin to move. We slowly move in on one car in particular and listen as a strong Latin rhythm begins to come through the radio, next thing we know the girl in the car breaks into song. One by one the drivers exit their cars and join in as it evolves into a massive choreographed song and dance number.
That’s how La La Land, my favorite movie of 2016 kicks off. It’s a glorious, powerful, and absolutely magical declaration of intent. It’s the film telling us that we are about to witness something special, a throwback to the golden age of Hollywood and the musicals that our parents and grandparents crowded into the theaters to see. We haven’t even been introduced to our leads yet, but we are already on the hook, and the film doesn’t once let go the rest of the way, as this majestic old school musical takes us on a magical journey.
I feel like I was probably predisposed to love La La Land, in some ways. As a hopeless romantic, and someone who spent eleven of the seventeen years that I was in school studying music in some form or another, a musical about a struggling jazz musician and an aspiring actress falling in love and trying to navigate life in LA is right up my alley. Even in spite of my aforementioned predisposition, I couldn’t have prepared myself for how genuinely jaw-droppingly amazing this film is.
Damien Chazelle has crafted in his third feature a film for the ages, the kind of film that directors spend their entire career chasing. A film that pushes boundaries and experiments with form in ways that have to be seen to be believed, all the while telling what will surely go down as one of the great cinematic romances featuring two actors who at multiple points feel like they are at risk of igniting the screen with their chemistry. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are a revelation in their roles as Mia and Sebastien. Both are putting in the kind of performances that you can only get when an artist fully buys into their role, full of affectations and mannerism that serve, along with a brilliant script, to create characters so vivid and real that by the end of the film they feel like old friends.
If you’ve ever spent any time working in or studying the performing arts, you know a Mia and a Sebastien, possibly several. Mia has spent her entire life performing, inspired by the encouragement of her aunt, who took her to movies and nourished her desire to create. She feels that need to perform deep in her bones, the desire consumes her, and each time she is rejected for a role it cuts deep, slicing away at her confidence and self-worth bit by bit, because performing isn’t something she does, no, that desire to perform is an essential part of who she is, and she can’t suppress it no matter how much easier it might make her life. Sebastien is a gifted jazz pianist going from gig to gig trying to scrounge together as much as he can. He doesn’t want to be rich or famous. No, he has a different dream, a dream of opening his own Jazz club, one where he can nourish a new generation of artists and showcase the music that he loves. He loves the music with a passion and hears it everywhere it goes, it gives him life and his fear that the art form is dying drives him. He’s uncompromising in his artistic vision and is seeking a purity of sound and style in his music that honestly may not exist. By the time these two have fallen in love with each other we have also fallen in love with them. Watching them try and navigate life in Tinsel Town, is one of the most beautiful things I have experienced at the cinema in years. They give this film its heart and soul, and their romance feels so earned and authentic that it is near impossible to adequately describe.
While Sebastien and Mia give the film it’s heart, it is the music that truly elevates it. Justin Hurwitz has crafted one of the most fantastic soundtracks that I have ever heard, featuring a combination of splendid original songs and a spectacular score, that combine to give the film some of the tightest tonal control that I have seen in years. Music is always key when making a movie but in a musical the integration of sight and sound takes on a whole new level of importance, and this is a film that more than rises to the challenge. From “Another Day of Sun” which opens the film to the show stopping “Audition,” each and every original song in this film is an ear worm that you will find yourself humming for weeks, which when combined with the lyrics all but insure this to be one of the most enduring sound tracks to come along in years. The score is also worth mentioning, as it features well-crafted themes and melodies that recur and are experimented with throughout the film in ways that delight the ear while also working to direct the mood and tone of scenes to masterful effect. I’ve seen musicals where the music and the story feel like two separate entities. These musicals for whatever reason can never find the mesh point, the synergy, that brings the two parts together and creates a whole. La La Land does not have this problem.
All of these little details combine to create a film that feels like something truly special. I read a review from a fellow film critic recently that referred to a moment that occasionally happens when watching a film, that moment when you realize that you are watching a film that is going to become a classic. La La Land is a film full of those moments, so many that it is honestly astounding. If something in this film doesn’t hook you, whether it be the show stopping opening number, the tap dance number that accompanies Mia and Sebastien’s first song, or the absolutely stunning ending, I will be shocked. This my friends is a film for the ages. Go see it now.