Review: La La Land (2016)


Writer/director Damien Chazelle follows up 2014’s tour de force drama Whiplash with La La Land, a contemporary version of the big screen musicals of the 1950’s and 1960’s which may be the best film of 2016.

From the opening shot of La La Land, which states the film is presented in Cinemascope to a sprawling one-shot musical dance number set amidst a traffic pile-up on the HOV ramp of the 110 Freeway in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, you know this is going to be a special film.

Damien Chazelle loves music. It’s a secondhand vernacular for him to explore obsession, beauty, love and relationships. As filmgoers, we were witness to this in Whiplash, a story about how music can both drive and inspire someone to make their dreams happen, even at a great cost. That vernacular extends to La La Land, which explores many of these same topics, but uses the tableau of the musical to also showcase his love of Hollywood, the glamour of cinema, and the complexities of finding & keeping love.

Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a devotee of jazz who life revolves around securing pianist gigs in Hollywood in order to keep his dream of re-opening a lost jazz bar alive. He’s an idealist, but one who is set in his ways. His house is a museum to the golden age of jazz, with pictures of the greats like Charlie “Bird” Parker lining his walls and floor. Emma Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actress with dreams of old Hollywood glamour keeping her going. She’s a barista on the Warner Brothers lot; one whose apartment is lined with framed posters of the Hollywood films of old. We first meet them on screen flipping each other off in the traffic jam that opens the film just before the title card comes up. Even though they’re at odds, we know in grand Hollywood tradition that their moxie towards each other means that they are meant to be in big screen love. Mia and her girlfriends go out to a Hollywood party that turns into an elaborate Bubsy Berkeley style musical number, complete with swimming pool stunts and dancing. As she leaves the party, she hears a haunting piano number that captures her attention. She follows the notes and they lead her into a bar. As she enters, she see Sebastian and as the lights dim around to spotlight his melody. She is captivated and as she comes up to tell him how much she loved his music, he walks right past her and bumps her out of this idyllic moment.

That moment represents the dichotomy present in La La Land, what the audience expects to follow in a traditional Hollywood film versus how a Hollywood moment would really transpire between people with complicated lives. La La Land gives the audience a lot of the classic Hollywood romance in this film. A memorable sequence occurs when the two have a date at a revival screening of Rebel Without A Cause. The film breaks and they go to the Griffith Observatory in Hollywood and live this romantic moment in the film themselves in a scene that becomes tinged with magical realism and the promise of love. But as their relationship changes and grows, we come back to that theater in a later scene and see it has closed down. Nothing lasts unchanged and immutable forever. As Mia and Seb’s lives grow together, so too does Seb’s feeling that security is important, even as Mia becomes more of an idealist and their dreams and goals begin to change. The film comments on whether part of becoming an adult means leaving your dreams behind; is responsibility the death of dreams. People are complex and the conclusions the movie leaves the audience with is that sometimes love can be an inspiration for both people in that relationship. An inspiration to reach those dreams they long for and one that can lead to fulfillment and happiness; even if that original love becomes bittersweet. As Sebastian sings on his piano, the lyrics of the song frame this conceit

Is this the start of something wonderful and new?
Or one more dream,
That I cannot make true.


La La Land is perhaps the best and most original film of 2016. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling shine in the film; their chemistry is largely what makes you invested in the film. Both showcase their comedic chops, but really make the dramatic moments in this film feel real. Stone’s showcase is a song near the end of the film “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” and it is a showstopping heartfelt moment as is the film’s epilogue. Chazelle and his songwriting contributor Jordan Horowitz have crafted one of the best films of the year and one that will be remembered for a long long time.