When Damien Chazelle released Whiplash in 2014, he introduced a film that was emotionally gripping, tense, and extremely entertaining. Focused on a jazz drummer, the film was tightly edited feeling like it itself was a piece of jazz music – enough room to have those powerful confrontations, but still moving at a brisk pace. For his sophomore follow up, Chazelle has placed his sights on classic Hollywood cinema. More specifically, La La Land is a modern take on classic musicals, but with just enough of Whiplash‘s struggles to feel unique and make it one of the year’s best films.
I should definitely state that I do not enjoy most movie musicals. I find them happy to a fault, with some of them dwelling on the songs instead of moving anything forward. What could be done using the power of film is instead stretched and beaten to death with music. La La Land does not have this problem. It builds characters through songs and only uses them in the right moments. It wouldn’t make sense to make a catchy song out of a depressing moment, so Chazelle doesn’t bother. But when there is a song being sung by anyone in the film, it’s one that will remain in your head for days. I’m a week out since I saw the film and I still sing “City of Stars” every now and then.
It’s a testament to the songwriting, but also to the script and performances. Chazelle moves at a fairly fast pace, tending to dwell on the moments that build character versus plot points. It’s all anchored around a central theme of following your dreams and what sacrifices you might have to make to accomplish them. That being said, the film is undoubtedly a romance between the two stars of the film, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone). It’s their dreams we are introduced to almost immediately, but it’s how they fit into each other’s lives that makes La La Land a massive triumph thematically. Where Sebastian wants to open a jazz club dedicated to celebrating jazz music exclusively, Mia wants to be an actress. The two play off each other and help bring the other to their dreams.
Star power (that is really a huge factor here), performances and chemistry all rest heavily on Gosling and Stone’s shoulders, but to us it seems like an effortless feat. The relationship between the two is palpable the moment they start intersecting in each other’s lives. This is partially due to the two both being very charismatic leads that you could hang a film on individually and still end up with something to talk about. Mia is kind of a mess but it’s only because she is moving 100 miles a minute. Meanwhile, Sebastian seems to be moving radically slow while still being his own sort of mess. But the two performances feel magnetic because they bring an energy that fits the aesthetic and their characters.
The most common staple of movie musicals is the constant happiness and struggles that seem slight. Chazelle doesn’t ignore this trope, even going so far as to open the film with a traffic-heavy Los Angeles freeway all dancing and saying how happy they are to be in the City of Angels. What is most effective in La La Land is how he takes a concept of living out your dreams and works against the tropes to create a somber ending filled with happiness but also just a tinge of sadness. You’ll probably feel elated by the end of the film, but there’s a layer underneath the joy that demands some inspection.
Undeniably though, this is one of the best films of 2016 and only further cements Chazelle as the genius that he is. I’m curious to see what happens when he breaks from music as a focal point of his films. His films carry a kinetic, musical energy already that I would love to see applied to something that doesn’t involve music. But for now, he’s making some of the best films of our generation. La La Land is a celebration of the movie musical and a place for joy in our films, even if it means a bit of sorrow is needed.