There are movies that make you smile.
I'm not talking about that half smirk you do when you sit down to watch your standard Hollywood laffer. I'm not talking about the loud guffaws you let loose with when you sit down to watch some laugh-a-minute silly comedy or some outrageously naughty flick.
I'm definitely not talking about that warm n' fuzzy feeling you get when you head down to the multiplex to catch Hollywood's latest inspiration porn.
Nah, I'm talking about something soulful. You might even call it jazzier. I'm talking about the kind of smile you feel when you fall in love or achieve a dream or just meet someone for the very first time and think to yourself "Maybe. Just maybe."
La La Land is the kind of film that finds you sitting in your movie theatre seat swaying to its rhythm, then smiling later on when you see its trailer playing on television or you hear its music on the radio. La La Land is the kind of film that Hollywood so seldom makes anymore, a film that writer/director Damien Chazelle could only get made after Whiplash, his breakthrough feature film that snagged five Academy Award nominations and a $50 million box-office on a $3.3 million production budget.
Yeah, it seems weird that a film so unabashedly romantic and hopeful could, in fact, only get made once Hollywood became convinced that the American moviegoing public would match that sentimentality with their highly valued moviegoing dollars.
Sometimes, it just doesn't pay to be a dreamer in this town.
One can only hope that the American moviegoing public does, in fact, find its way into the movie theatres this holiday season to check out La La Land, an original musical that harkens back to the days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers when Hollywood musicals were more than simply movies with music. They were films where the story came alive in the fluidity of the song and the full-on embodying of the story in every movement of the actors and actresses. I mean, to this day I can't pass by a streetlight without grabbing hold of it, twirling myself around and singin' in the rain and smiling a big ole' broad smile.
La La Land is that kind of film.
The film kicks off with a big number, "Another Day of Sun," a number that made me kind of chuckle when I thought to myself that it looked like a sunnier variation of a certain Michael Douglas film with a decidedly darker bent to it. This film, nah, it's not about the darkness but about that indescribable hope that one feels walking by the Hollywood sign and chasing what nearly anyone would tell you is an impossible dream.
It may be an impossible dream for Mia (Emma Stone), a barista at a coffeeshop on the Warner Brothers lot between auditions that are simultaneously fuel for the fire burning inside and relentlessly brutal to her psyche'. It may be an impossible dream for Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a talented jazz pianist whose artistic integrity has him wanting to open up his own jazz club rather than selling out and serving up watered down jazz, or for that matter A Flock of Seagulls.
The two meet. There isn't a spark but, of course, there really is a spark. They don't see it, but we do. We'd have to, of course, because Gosling and Stone are two of Hollywood's most likable performers who also happen to be pretty amazingly talented. They can both sing and dance, though there's a naturalism to their voices that feels less showy and more authentic. While Stone took over the role of Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway, and it shows here, this kind of a character is more of a stretch for Gosling who has, if we're being honest, made a career out of stretching himself as an actor and doing films that leave you shaking your head mumbling to yourself "How did that work?"
In a recent interview, Gosling spoke about his hesitation to do the film because he was concerned he wouldn't be able to capture his character's more magical moments. I found myself floored when I heard this, because capturing that magic is, perhaps, precisely what Gosling does best and he certainly does so here.
While the film's opening number plays out larger than life on an L.A. Highway, most of the tunes in La La Land are quieter tunes, forwarding the film's story without dominating it. "City of Stars," the film's most likely Oscar nominee for original song, is a peaceful little ditty sung with a quietly burning hope by Gosling and woven into the fabric of the film in a way that is noticeable yet effective. The brilliance of Chazelle's direction, and it is brilliant direction, is that he fully realizes that there's more to a movie musical than simply the movie and the musical. Everything matters. He understands that body language matters. He understands that choreography matters. He understands that to really make a musical work you can't simply work your editing magic and have everything convince - you have to use that camera for long, extraordinary takes of unbroken dancing magic and ensemble interaction. Linus Sandgren's lensing is intimate and wonderful and vibrant and fluid. It's everything that La La Land needs it to be.
You may very well see better films than La La Land this year, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a more spirited and entertaining one. At a time when Hollywood seems to do nothing but retreads and sequels, La La Land is both a tip o' the hat to classic Hollywood and a unique vision unto itself.
As I've been sitting here writing this review, I've found myself playing the La La Land trailer over and over and over again. I smile each time and can feel my entire physical being relaxing into its charms. Warm and loving, romantic and dream-affirming, La La Land features a career best performance from Emma Stone, more proof that Gosling is one of the most transformative actors working today, and affirmation that Damien Chazelle is one of the most visionary and talented of this generation's up-and-coming directors. See it. See La La Land in the theatres where you can fully experience what a Hollywood musical is supposed to look and feel like.
Indeed, this is it.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic