La La Land

Here's to the fools who dream.

By Louis Balzani


  • Nope. No if’s. Just watch this.

Every so often, a film completely hits it out of the park. It tells an engrossing and captivating story. It looks beautiful, and it sounds even better. It executes on its premise so well that it becomes an absolute joy to behold. As you’ve probably guessed, I think La La Land is one of those films – now let me tell you why.

Like so many other musicals before it, La La Land evolves out of a meet cute between two souls that were destined to come together. Struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) attends an endless parade of auditions in an attempt to get her career off the ground. At the same time, down-on-his-luck jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) finds his life in flux after falling victim to a scam and losing yet another job. The two cross paths repeatedly, and after their mutual disdain inevitably gives way to a passionate relationship, they start to support each other and pursue their crazy dreams. As great opportunities and disappointments arise, conflicts spring up alongside them, and the two find themselves faced with the realities of life in unexpected ways.

The story itself treads familiar ground, but the film transcends that familiarity in so many ways; we haven’t seen something this effective come out of Hollywood in quite a while. Once upon a time, the musical was the film industry’s trump card, a distinctive experience that swept audiences away like no other genre could. Productions like Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris were indispensable staples of your local movie theater, but the genre lost some of that mystique over time, and it gradually fell out of favor. At its core, La La Land is a tribute to those films and the bygone era in which they what a tribute it is. La La Land uses those older films as a foundation upon which it builds a more modern tale of love and ambition. It presents an almost surreal world for us to get lost in – neither past nor present, but some strange fusion of the two; remove the iPhones and Priuses, and it’s easy to forget in which decade the story takes place. It’s not a complete throwback, however – unlike its classic counterparts, La La Land is quite melancholy and wistful, unafraid to tackle the heavier aspects of when life and romance clash. Nowhere is this more apparent than the film’s final fifteen minutes, which come as a heartbreaking and exceptionally fitting conclusion to an enthralling narrative.

Much of the story’s heft and impact is thanks to the excellent performances of its two leads. Unsurprisingly, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling sport magnetic chemistry throughout; their inherent watchability keeps the arc of their characters’ relationship grounded and plausible, even as the film indulges in the occasional and, in some cases, very literal flight of fancy. By and large, the supporting cast merely exists for window dressing and the occasional world-building distraction; the one exception is John Legend’s Keith, who emerges from Sebastian’s past to tempt him with the lucrative appeal of a steady paycheck. The lack of focus on others is acceptable, though; ultimately, this is Mia and Sebastian’s story.

The film also benefits from modern-day technology and production values. Stunning cinematography means every scene is a treat to watch; in many cases, the camera flows around as fluidly as the actors and dancers do. Director Damien Chazelle drenches Los Angeles in gorgeous, eye-popping color, which helps the film ride that fine line between fantasy and reality. Lengthy one-take shots show off the genuine skill and craftsmanship of passionate filmmakers; the exceptionally complex opening number is particularly jaw-dropping, and when the title appears as that song reaches its glorious finale, we know we’re in for something special.

Speaking of songs, the film’s music is in a league of its own. Soaring compositions evoke classic Hollywood in the best of ways; they perfectly capture the feeling of those old-school musicals, a feeling I can only describe as magical. When the more energetic numbers kick into high gear and the orchestra really gets going, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the joy of it all. The score consists of only a handful of melodies, which gives each identifiable tune more weight and purpose over time, and composer Justin Hurwitz expertly transforms them to match the hope, heartbreak, or general melancholy of any given scene.

At this point, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how well this film flows. Razor-sharp editing, which often syncs flawlessly with the soundtrack, augments an overall sense of timing that’s second to none. With the score acting as a sort of metronome for these characters’ lives, many scenes unfold with the actors moving and performing in perfect time. Lighting cues – again, beautifully timed to the soundtrack – transform the focus of a scene in dramatic, yet intimate, ways. Ringtones and ambient noises underline or interrupt important moments right when they’re needed. It’s all very smooth, very precise, and satisfying as can be.

So let’s cut to the chase: La La Land is nothing sort of a triumph, a victory lap for a neglected genre. In paying such passionate reverence to Hollywood’s golden age, the film conjures up an exceptionally entertaining and romantic night at the movies. By deftly balancing glee and glum, Chazelle and his crew achieve the depth necessary to make the film more than just a collection of pretty shots and catchy songs, and they assert one message above all else: we may not end up where we expected to be in life, but we might as well sing and dance along the way.