Hype can be a real killer sometimes.
With Oscar season in full swing, audiences are treated to the cream of the crop of films released in the year during the final three months known as “Awards Season.” This is the time when guilds big and small (including my own North Carolina Film Critics Association) votes for the best films of the year leading up to the trio of the biggest televised awards shows in the first months of 2017: The Golden Globe Awards in early January, the Screen Actors Guild Awards at the tail-end of January and the big daddy Academy Awards at the end of February, effectively ending awards season. Each year, many different films are offered up by studios and distributors hoping to vie for the golden statues that are so highly regarded. if we add early coverage of many of these films for a select few journalists able to attend major film festivals, what we end up with is a lot of hype for a certain few films. Coming off of Sundance this year, the two films with the most amount of hype were “The Birth of a Nation” and “Manchester by the Sea.” While “Manchester by the Sea” didn’t hit its hype set forth by journalists, it was a moving film nonetheless, while “The Birth of a Nation” struggled to do anything with its incredibly promising premise. Going into the Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival this year, there were quite a few films on everyone’s watchlist that were sure to be hits with awards voters, but as each festival ended, one title stood head and shoulders above the rest.
“La La Land”
This immediately made “La La Land” a dangerous film, as the hype set forth by not just a few, but nearly all the journalists were absolutely glowing. I immediately became scared that “La La Land” would find itself being another “The Birth of a Nation” or another “Carol” for this year. But “La La Land” has a particular set of skills that makes it unique from the rest of the pack. “La La Land” is the rare musical that hits theaters nowadays and is even rarer as an original musical written directly for the screen, not adapted from a broadway musical. On top of that, the film is director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his 2014 debut “Whiplash,” which was one of the few films of the 2014 awards season that not only hit its hype, but exceeded it. And yet, there was still something that seemed a bit fishy with “La La Land,” but then…
…”La La Land” did it.
After reading every review, every interview, every preview article, watching every trailer and clip and somehow “La La Land” lived up to its immense hype and it doesn’t take long for the film to do it, either. The films tarts quietly, with a shot of the sky, panning down to the bumper to bumper chaos of Los Angeles traffic and then, out of the silence, the music starts. Once the opening number, titled “Another Day of Sun” got underway, I knew that what I was watching was special. “La La Land” is a film that makes you excited for the future, not just for movies, but for life itself, something that is desperately needed now more than ever. The film has every bit of classic charm that we would expect from a big name musical (including a classic looking Summit Entertainment logo at the start [seen in the trailer] and a “Presented in CinemaScope” title card directly following this), while also injecting the film with a new energy for musicals and film in general that the industry has desperately needed for a while. But what “La La Land” does wonderfully from the start is that it doesn’t tie itself to either, the film never feels like it’s pining for the past in a pretentious, Quentin Tarantino-like romanticism, nor does it go so far with new ideas that it turns off audience members, much like Baby Bear’s porridge, “La La Land” is just right.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress in L.A. that has yet to come across any luck in her occupation. Working at the coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, Mia’s dreams dangle right in front of her face, but seemingly still out of her reach. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist whose inability to conform with what is popular and asked of him prevents him from making any strides in his line of work. Mia and Sebastian cross paths multiple times in the beginning of the film, often exchanging biting exchanges with each other before submitting to their obvious attraction. Working off of each other in a strange “opposites attract” scenario, their love story takes them across the magical lights of L.A. and beyond as their two worlds collide.
One of the most admirable aspects of “La La Land” is how it not only blends fantasy with reality, but morphs them into one cohesive being. In Mia and Seb’s L.A., fantasy is their reality in the world of young love and art. It doesn’t matter if a scene is rooted directly into reality or is literally flying through the stars, the implications of these actions are meaningless in the sheer magic that Chazelle has made with the film. L.A. is such a unique place in the world that the world of fantasy often takes over from actual reality, making this component of “La La Land” so utterly successful and enthralling.
If we want to cover all the bases for “La La Land” and its award season reach, let’s start with Stone, who is an absolute show-stopper as Mia. Through the film, I knew that her performance was going to garner her an Oscar nomination, but it wasn’t until her take on “Audition” (seen in trailer 2 here) that it became increasingly clear that Stone might just be the clear frontrunner in this Best Actress race. Though, I still have yet to see Isabelle Huppert in “Elle” or Natalie Portman in “Jackie,” Stone still seems to be one of the stronger competitors. Gosling also gives an awards worthy performance, though I mostly see his capabilities staying solely at nomination level, as his performance, while very impressive, didn’t rip my heart out as cleanly as Stone’s did.
“La La Land” also has quite a few extended cameos from recognizable faces that weren’t as heavily advertised, like J.K. Simmons “the clear star of “Whiplash”), Rosemarie DeWitt, Finn Wittrock, Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno, Josh Pence and singer John Legend. While not many of these actors are given that much to work with (aside from Legend, who has a decent size part), they all show why they are such respected actors in the first place. Each of these actors plays off of either Gosling or Stone in such unique ways that make their parts more memorable than their character size might initially allow them to.
“La La Land” is unlike any other film that’s released this year in its indescribable tone too, which is something I’ve been struggling to put into words ever since I saw the film a little under three weeks ago. “La La Land” simply feels different from other films, other musicals, other awards season movies, and it is an utterly unique film not in just content, but the feeling that you get as an audience member as you watch the film. If anything, “La La Land” feels like the first of its kind, something that inspires a certain feeling that I as a moviegoer want to come to expect from films, to not only stimulate me intellectually and emotionally, but to do it in a way that I’ve never felt before.
Let’s not even begin on the technical side of “La La Land,” or we might be here all day. The film is one of the most beautiful films you will see on screens all year, with its vibrant color palette, dreamlike camera movements and some of the most impressive looking musical sequences I’ve seen in a film in a very long time. Never once does the vibrancy of the film feel overstated or tacky and Chazelle’s mix of fantasy and reality calls for something to reflect both in look and feel. With this comes beautiful production design as well, echoing the same sort of fantastical feeling that has been upheld since the start of the film. “La La Land” looks and feels like a film that takes place in a world too ridiculous to exist, which makes the more grounded moments of the film almost feel more like fantasy than that of when Mia and Seb dance through the stars together.
Typically, when a musical film is taken directly to cinemas before a theatrical run on Broadway or the West End, it either finds itself as a Disney film, a jukebox musical, or something that neither Broadway or the West End wanted, but with “La La Land,” we have a musical adapted directly to film because to do so in any other medium wouldn’t capture the magic needed on its first time around. Theater is big and exciting, but “La La Land” is quieter and more intimate, not afraid to have stretches of dialogue between the songs, not afraid to inject diegetic music with non-diegetic music throughout and to craft something that feels both like a classic musical and a new breed of it all at the same time. It also doesn’t hurt that the music in “La La Land” is incredibly lush, beautiful and really, really catchy. I often find myself humming the tunes to the film throughout my day, pining for the day in which the soundtrack is released to the public (and more specifically, when my special vinyl edition comes in the mail). Of the songs in the film, I’ll go ahead and tag “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd” as my two personal favorites.
“La La Land” might sound like a film that is nothing but sunshine and smiles and unicorns and rainbows by the way that I am describing it, but the film also features quite a melancholy side to it that is equally as jarring. When the film is happy, it’s insatiably giddy, but when the film is sad, it’s a devastating sort of sadness that only comes with characters as inherently likable and developed as Mia and Seb are. “La La Land” might not be a film that will bring you to tears in the same way that “A Monster Calls” (review publishing when it releases in January) does, but it’s a “pit in your stomach” sort of sadness that comes in the disappointment that one often feels in themselves when something goes south, which should say quite a bit about the singular nature of “La La Land.”
“La La Land” joins the ranks of “Arrival” and “Kubo and the Two Strings” as one of the best films that 2016 has offered so far. This is a lush, magical, uplifting, devastating, engaging, charming, beautiful, classic and wholly new piece of cinema that simply begs to be seen on the big screen. This is the type of film that only comes along once in a blue moon that is sure to captivate both audiences and critics, much like Chazelle’s previous film, “Whiplash” did just two years prior. The fact that this is only Chazelle’s second feature and he has mustered another masterclass of cinema at just age 31 is incredible (as well as penning the final screenplay treatment on “10 Cloverfield Lane,” also one of the best films of the year). This is hands down the best work we’ve seen from Stone and Gosling over their already illustrious and versatile careers, and just another facet of proof that they are one of the best acting duos in the game (after starring in “Crazy Stupid Love” and “Gangster Squad” together in the past). Everything about “La La Land” is meticulously crafted and incredibly well done, evoking the best of the past, present and future of both film and musical theater. And still, I almost want to downplay my love for this film just so I can prevent hype from being a killer for anyone else, but I still can’t find the words to necessarily describe how I think that to be impossible.
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno, and J.K. Simmons.
Runtime: 128 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some language.
Opens in select cities on Dec. 9, opens in Charlotte on Dec. 16.
Summit Entertainment presents, a Marc Platt production, an Imposter Pictures/Gilbert Films production, a Damien Chazelle film, “La La Land”