Directed by: Damien Chazelle || Produced by: Fred Berger, Gary Gilbert, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt
Screenplay by: Damien Chazelle || Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J. K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Tom Everett Scott
Music by: Justin Hurwitz || Cinematography: Linus Sandgren || Edited by: Tom Cross || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 128 minutes
Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) was not only one of the best films of that year, but it remains one of the best films of the past decade. Unparalleled editing, top notch musical direction, and a bravado Oscar-winning performance from J.K. Simmons made Chazelle’s sophomore effort smash upon release, breathing unmatched energy and excitement into that year’s Academy Award nominees.
I have been eagerly awaiting a followup from Chazelle ever since, and now we finally have one in this year’s likely Best Picture-favorite, the Hollywood musical-throwback, La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as the archetypal aspiring actress and musician, respectively, hoping to make it big in the City of Angels, known for crushing the artistic careers of untold legions of dreamers just like them. Unlike Whiplash, La La Land is vintage Oscar-bait, what with its classical 1950s aesthetic, musical genre-status, and Hollywood introspection, though I don’t necessarily mean that as a criticism. Like Whiplash, Chazelle’s latest feature showcases impressive yet controlled tracking shots, deliberate use of handheld cinematography, and tight in-scene editing.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of La La Land (henceforth, LLL) is its forgettable soundtrack. Its musical components aren’t lackluster, per se, but given its filmmaker’s extensive background in jazz and particularly Whiplash’s superb use of musical storytelling, I expected much more from this film in that regard. LLL’s visuals are strong, overall, both in its song-numbers and dramatic scenes, but I could barely recall a single tune or thematic motif from the film even a few hours after viewing it. I hate to say this, but the driving force of this musical is overwhelmingly the visuals, to the extent that the music could be removed from most of the set-pieces and the film wouldn’t lose much impact. That statement may sound drastic, but I’m sticking by it.
On the other hand, Chazelle’s visual direction and detailed characterizations remain as strong as ever. Chazelle, unlike an Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (e.g. Birdman , The Revenant ) or Alfonso Cuaran (e.g. Children of Men , Gravity ), is able to conduct flowing, sustained long-takes without drawing attention to the technique itself (i.e. he’s subtle, not a show-off), and orchestrates some of the tightest character-scenes of the year with the help of Oscar-winning editor Tom Cross.
Interesting and also amusing critiques described by Red Letter Media include the film’s questionable low-key lighting and extensive use of outdoor photography for its song-numbers. Put in bluntest terms, LLL boasts the appearance and visual style of a horror film rather than that of a whimsical, fantastical love-story with surrealist musical routines. These odd lighting schemes may be hard to avoid in daytime sequences outside, but the movie’s indoor and nighttime cinematography throughout remain dominated by hard shadows and moody visuals for no reason. Evaluating the film in hindsight, LLL’s combination of generic music with almost neo-noir lighting are Damian Chazelle’s biggest missteps with this project.
One final negative and positive remain, namely leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone with regards to the latter, and the film’s somewhat bloated length with regards to the former. While LLL’s within-scene edits are on par with Whiplash or even Quentin Tarantino’s best, the film’s overall running-time is long in the tooth. The film starts and ends strong, but as is the case with many musicals, LLL runs on fumes and several repetitive scenes in its middle and final acts. Aside from its impressive conclusion, the film almost forgets it’s a musical by the halfway mark and turns into a more conventional drama for the majority of its latter half. Much of that is forgivable, however, given male-lead Gosling’s impressive range and never-ending charisma, as well as female-lead Stone’s spunky girl-next-door appeal. Their romantic growth is as cute as they come and culminates in that aforementioned impressive ending.
Needless to say, La La Land is a comedown for me in comparison to the mighty Whiplash, but then again so are most films. It is a solid film and a more than worthy date-night for this holiday season, featuring two of the best-looking romantic leads in the business. If nothing else, Damien Chazelle’s latest is Hollywood’s best attempt at the old-school English-language musical in years, putting works like Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables (2012), Rob Marshall’s Chicago (2002), and Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001) in their place, its weird lighting notwithstanding. I may be disappointed in La La Land’s soundtrack, but this is filmmaking, and the visual art of storytelling comes first.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Damien Chazelle doubles down on his love for jazz and energetic cinematography, yet remembers the restraint and discipline that both disciplines require to make their passionate arts flourish. Like fellow auteur Dennis Villeneuve and veteran David Fincher, most every shot of every scene feels composed, purposeful, and deliberate. Likable, beautiful stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are well used and oh so lovable, as a result.
— However… for such a loud and proud musical, La La Land’s musical components are mediocre at best. Again, they’re not bad, but like the film’s overly long length, they could’ve used more refinement or a slight rewrite. The film is also inexplicably lit as if it were a horror movie or noir crime drama, which clashes with the film’s musical elements and occasional surrealist flourishes.
? Neon Demon (2016) did it better!