As soon as La La Land begins, you’re either in or you’re out. Either you’ll be swept off your feet, get smacked with the biggest smile on your face, in awe of the craftsmanship and ambition on display, smitten with the charm of Damien Chazelle’s filmmaking – or maybe you can’t allow yourself to feel such emotions anymore. Maybe you’re above happiness. I’m not. The opening shot, an extended one take musical sequence set on a crammed freeway, whisked me away to a better place.
It’s a callback to how old school musicals were shot, in wide shots without cutting. Back then, you had to be at the top of your game with the choreography and timing. You couldn’t hide anything in cuts. Chazelle takes advantage of modern camerawork in addition to classicism, using steadicam and rapid movements to heighten the giddy reality of his film. His camera whirls around his subjects and whip-pans between corners of the locations, there isn’t a dull shot in the thing. La La Land exists in a fluctuating state of hyperreality. Sunsets seem almost like matte paintings, the colors of the city and clothing pop and of course, people break into song and dance like it’s natural.
Chazelle’s Whiplash is perhaps one of the greatest directorial debuts in at least the 21st century. When myself and some friends watched Whiplash for the first time, we were actively sweating. Few films have been so exhilarating and intense. When the end came we screamed at the screen in pure orgasmic satisfaction. Had we just witnessed perfection? Let’s not also forget the superb scriptwriting Chazelle did on Grand Piano and 10 Cloverfield Lane. It’s curious that he would take all his newfound power and put it towards making a new entry in a dying genre. It seems almost required to compare Chazelle and Scorsese in any review of this film, so here’s my obligatory insight. I don’t want to get sidetracked here and start calling Chazelle the next Scorsese, that’s not fair to either of them, but the similarities are fun to examine. Scorsese followed Taxi Driver with his own original musical New York, New York. Both filmmaker’s musicals are love letters to their cities and to filmmaking.
Emma Stone always seems so effortlessly charming in whatever she does, bringing immense range of comedy and heartbreak in her role here. She’s an actress capable of busting your gut and making you cry in the span of a scene. It’s time to recognize she’s up there with the best of her generation. Gosling is one of the only actors capable of holding his own against her, able to run the gamut of emotions in a single musical number. As this is the 3rd film they’ve played romance in together, there’s an ease in how they interact and play off each other. They may not be Astaire and Rogers, but they’re still plenty captivating and charming. Gosling also did all the piano playing himself, spending six months before shooting in lessons. There are no hand doubles or CG work in what you see. I know it’s cool now to hate on method acting, but come on, what he did for this role is seriously impressive. I’ve been alive for 24 years and the most complicated thing I ever learned on piano was that piano hook from Linkin Park’s “In the End,” meanwhile, Gosling is riffing on Thelonius Monk and Gil Evans just because he can.
Gosling (although he has a nice album under Dead Man’s Bones) and Stone aren’t singers by trade, and it’s evident in their vocals, but strangely it works to the film’s advantage. They’re not doing the pitch-perfect notes that we’re accustomed to in musicals. There’s a level of intimacy and authenticity in their imperfect singing that just adds to the charm of this work. For what it’s worth, the songs are incredibly catchy too. I spent the rest of my day humming “City of Stars” and “Another Day of Sun” as I walked around.
Another interesting aspect of how Chazelle pays tribute to the classics while pushing the genre forward is in how the musical numbers are performed. Most of the ensemble numbers are filmed with lip-sync, the classic way, but in one key sequence Chazelle uses the audio recorded on set in a mystifying way. Gosling and Stone do a reprisal of “City of Stars” together at home, and the fact that it’s done with their in-camera singing adds an emotional layer of romance and intimacy to the number.
La La Land put the biggest smile on my face at the theaters this year. Yet just as much as La La Land will make you grin, it will break your heart in equal measure. It’s not quite a happy ending, but one of bitter acceptance of the cost of personal gain and accomplishments of dreams. The final sequence takes a look at a life that could have been, tearing you apart with each new wrinkle in the retelling. Whiplashasked the question of whether or not interpersonal connection had to be sacrificed for artistic success. La La Land takes it further, asking if sacrificing that interpersonal connection for it all was worth it in the end.