What makes a great song, a great film or, for that matter, any great work of art? Damien Chazelle’s answer to that question is that great art is anything done by a person who is passionate about it. His latest film La La Land is then a testament to great art, combining the passionate performances of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling with the equally passionate filmmaking by Chazelle in a story that brings two characters, equally passionate in their own arts, into each other’s lives. While being a refreshing revival of the grandiose Hollywood musical, La La Land also turns out to have the biggest heart of any film in a long time. And in this year when most of the world seems to be taking a step back for the worse, isn’t an escape of optimism something we could all use?
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress living in Los Angeles, who is starting to feel, as most such characters do, that show business might not be for her. Having to work all day at the coffee shop and facing rejections at every audition, the only thing that keeps her going is the intensity of her dream. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a down-on-his-luck jazz pianist, who is forced to play catchy tunes at a local diner to make two ends meet. With a love for jazz expressed in every breathe he takes, and constantly rejected by a society which has moved on from it, he dreams to one day run a bar dedicated to the same music. The story is simple enough, and seems the obvious for a romantic musical set in L.A., but believe me, this is one film that proves how you can still take a traditional idea and create something no one has experienced before. Originality does not mean just new stories, but also new ways of telling old stories; and Chazelle’s movie does just that, while leading each step in the story through elegant and visually stunning numbers.
So, what exactly makes La La Land so great that everyone is raving about it? Well, the simple answer to that is how the film looks: taking inspiration from the classics but transforming it into something of its own, the visuals of this musical strike powerful notes with its audience. Simply put, this is hands down the most remarkable feat of images and music dancing with each other I have seen in years. Using the camera as a third limb, Chazelle swings in and out, back and forth, between Mia and Sebastian, building and guiding the story of their relationship in a visual extravaganza that will make you hold your breath throughout. The director plays the characters so subtly within the frames of wide shots so that we are able to visually see the development of their relationship with each other. Pregnant with great scenes, the beauty of this movie is best felt in a musical sequence at the top of a hill overlooking the Los Angeles sunset, which is an amazing example of a perfect unison of music, atmosphere and two characters communicating themselves through motion.
But the real answer to that earlier question does not lie in its gorgeous visuals, but in the passion beneath it that exudes from every frame of the film. This is a case of the wonderful eclipse of the creative visions of director, music and actors, all of whom have poured their heart into this movie. Expressing his love for music and the human emotion that powers it, which we last saw in 2014’s Whiplash – a film about an aspiring jazz drummer and his merciless teacher – Chazelle makes this one a tribute to golden age Hollywood musicals, although not remaining a traditionalist, and managing to slip his soft spot for jazz into the mix. The story being told is also of the passion that makes Mia and Sebastian fall for each other, especially pronounced in a scene at a jazz club where Seb explains his love for jazz. Following the journey that your life takes when your passions comes in contact with reality, La La Land powers the feelings through every choice of shot, character gesture, and lighting (watch out especially for the places where red and green/blue make an appearance).
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are also in tune, and as immersed in the magic of this story as the characters they are playing, with the former giving a standout evocative performance that reaches out to our very souls. And although Gosling is a bit off in a few places, the couple complement each other perfectly well and there is never a jarring moment. It wouldn’t matter in any case, as this film is simply exploding with enough heart and emotion to draw even the most hardened cynic into its fantastical world. Chazelle was clearly influenced greatly by the great musicals of the ‘50s, taking their positive spirit and placing it in the 21st century, in a film that feels timeless in every moment, even the ones where they’re using modern phones. Not strictly conforming to the traditions of big musicals, this is an inventive spin on a golden age genre that could use a comeback.
If passion is truly the measure of art’s quality, then La La Land is one of the most raw and wonderful movies ever made. Having seen it twice already, I can honestly say this is a theatre experience not to be missed by anyone who loves great visuals, movies, music or just anything into which its maker has poured their heart and soul. Now that 2016 has had its share of misfortunes and disasters to make us cry out in anger and turn more cynical, we can only think ourselves lucky to end the year with something like this movie – a life-affirming, breathtaking fantasy.