La La Land Review: Dream On

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Infectious, beautiful, light, and heartbreaking, La La Land is so good that it already feels like a classic. From the film’s energetic opening number on the jammed Los Angeles freeway to the quieter, emotionally complicated images that end the film, it’s clear Damien Chazelle has made his second masterpiece in a row, following 2014’s Whiplash. This musical meditation on the reality of hopes and dreams has the look and feel of a 1950s big studio musical, taking many queues from the genre’s best, Singin’ In the Rain (though this one pretty easily cracks the top five all time), while still feeling entirely fresh and of the zeitgeist in 2016.

The lively, tone-setting opening number gives way for separate introductions to Mia (Emma Stone, far exceeding already high expectations) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, charming as ever). Mia is a barista on the Warner Bros. lot who’s constantly rushing to auditions for projects she inevitably won’t get. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who’s true talents are hidden away under the Christmas carols his day job at a restaurant forces him to play. La La Land takes the struggling artist setup and updates it to the present with clever details and character beats that make the film essential to 2016 and not just a retread of old Hollywood musical glory. That’s not to say this musical is gritty, this is still a film where the two leads inexplicably tap dance on the street just because, but that the modernism it sports is as key to its success as its reliance on the tropes of a classic old Hollywood musical. This marriage of new and old clicks together after Mia and Sebastian go on their initial chemistry fueled journey of love. It’s when their relationship starts to evolve in unexpected directions with the growing characters that the plot thickens in a way normally unseen in upbeat musicals.

Where the first half delivers the goods on its light, frothy tone with a number of instantly catchy tunes, the second half dives deep into what it means to face failure in a town like Los Angeles, and what that possibility of failure means for yourself and your loved ones. This is where Stone starts to run away with the movie, proving capable of tearing your heart to pieces while getting you to pick it back up yourself and go do something big. Her song “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” late in the film will leave you in a puddle for multiple complicated reasons. Gosling is great, as usual, but overshadowed by an actress who immensely expands her potential beyond what many of us likely thought was possible. Bluntly, Stone gives the best performance of anyone in cinema this year.

It helps, however, that Chazelle’s script includes both genuine drama and expertly crafted numbers for her to perform. Every song here, from the big catchy numbers to the quiet ballads, is not only memorable but also made into a sequence that perfectly highlight’s each individual song’s strengths. Chazelle’s direction is effortless, while Linus Sandgren’s camera work smoothly zips around to the melody. With the mix of vibrant, colorful production design to the music, La La Land taps into a cinematic beauty so rarely seen. In short, this is the kind of film that justifies the medium’s very existence, much like Moonlight did in almost the exact opposite way earlier this year.

But as the film dances along, its complexities reveal themselves and ensure that the film isn’t just a nostalgia trip. There is something new here, a meditation on art and success layered with subtly that usually escapes the musical genre. Maybe you bought your ticket for the flashy numbers or the chemistry you know Stone and Gosling already share from Crazy, Stupid, Love. What you’re getting is a masterpiece of modern cinema that contains a love letter to classic cinema. La La Land is the whole package, and one that won’t be forgotten as long as we still make movies. Grade: A

By Matt Dougherty

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