There's something magical about LA LA LAND.
Writer/Director Damien Chazelle burst on the scene with "Whiplash" two years ago, a hardcore, full tilt drama about a young drummer and his drill Sergeant-like drum teacher. It was a powerful, in your face power struggle filled with terrific music and shocking behavior.
Two years later, Chazelle leverages the success of that film at the box office to create a project he's worked on for years, but could never get financed.
It's everything that "Whiplash" wasn't. Quiet. Romantic. Beautiful.
Emma Stone stars as Mia, an aspiring actress working as a barista in a studio cafe, struggling through endless auditions and losing faith in herself.
Life introduces her to struggling Jazz pianist Sebastian, more committed to the truth of Jazz than his paycheck and dreaming of opening his own club.
Where Tarantino creates visual and stylistic tributes to the greatest action films of all time, creating something wholly his own, Chazelle does the same thing here with incredible style, saluting the classic MGM Movie Musicals of the 40's and 50's yet making this a movie taking place today.
He sets the gambit up scene one, with an entire freeway of gridlocked Los Angeles drivers bursting into a song called "Another Day of Sun".
If you don't know this is a musical, it will throw you, as it certainly did some folks in our audience that walked out when the third song started. (Don't get me started about people that would go see a movie without knowing anything about it...really? Anyway...)
It's not sung through, but our characters do break into song throughout. Luckily the songs by Justin Hurwitz are terrific and compelling and sometimes incredibly powerful.
Ryan Gosling as Sebastian and Emma Stone as Mia are both terrific, displaying some serious dancing and singing chops.
Chazelle doesn't just throw together a lazy tribute to the classic musical. In the moment of the film that hooked me, Gosling and Stone perform the song "A Lovely Night" on a real location overlooking the LA basin. It's a long song and dance number shot in one take, no cuts, in a perfect tribute to the Astaire/Rogers musicals of old. Stone and Gosling rehearsed for months to get this six minute sequence perfect, and it is perfect.
From that moment in, Chazelle had me glued.
Here are two likeable people with similar goals, different paths and an obvious spark, but as you'd anticipate from "Whiplash", Chazelle does not take the cinematic path you'd expect.
Chazelle has said that he wanted to create a movie that conveys what it feels like to be in love. If you can watch the Planetarium song and dance sequence and not think he got it right, you might get one of those little xray devices the Grinch used to find his tiny heart.
That being said, this is the kind of film that will be alienating. I have male friends that I have already told not to see it because they'd HATE it, LOL. If you dont like musicals, don't go. A half dozen people walked out of the showing we were at, apparently horrified to expose themselves to people singing.
Chazelle is 32 years old. After "Whiplash", I said I couldn't wait to see what he would do next. After LA LA LAND, I can't even imagine what he'll do next. He's created one hard-nosed, brutal drama and one beautiful musical love story with equal superior results.
John Legend provides some great songs and strong acting, JK Simmons is a restaurant owner that could be Fletcher from Whiplash in an alternate universe.
The photography and set design call back all the vivid colors of the MGM musicals, perfectly executed and spun into something new.
Chazelle is one of our best visual directors, creating things you'll only see on repeat viewings (check out some of the reflections in the tip jar while Sebastian plays in the restaurant and breaks into his own composition) and fills every frame with nostalgia.
LA LA LAND is about big questions. Does personal ambition override love? At what cost?
Can you have everything you've ever dreamed of and yet still be missing the most important thing in life?
Are there different paths your life can take from a single point and do the future paths ever connect?
I'm a lucky man to still be madly in love with my bride after twenty years. Chazelle said he wanted to create a film that would show what it felt like to fall in love. Watching the sunset dance sequence, the Planetarium scene and Mia's final song (The Fools Who Dream) with my wife's hand in mine, I'd have to say Chazelle knocked it out of the park.
If Gosling and Stone and Chazelle don't all have Oscars in hand by Spring, I'd be very surprised.
LA LA LAND is my favorite movie of 2016 and gets an A+.