It can be difficult to find a beacon of joy, humor, and levity amongst the pack of emotionally heavy and intensely dramatic cinematic fare at the Toronto International Film Festival. Damien Chazelle’s movie musical LA LA LAND is the remedy for that, balancing levity and humor with auteur-grade filmmaking for an incredibly enchanting movie-going experience that will put a twinkle in your eye and a spring in your step.
An homage to the charm of old Hollywood musicals, La La Land is set in present-day Los Angeles and follows actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), both of whom are in the midst of an all-too-familiar struggle to follow their dreams and make it big in Hollywood.
Crossing paths several times throughout the film, it takes a while for them to get along until they finally hit it off at an industry party and dance their way to a relationship in an unforgettable musical sequence set against a gorgeous, smogless skyline of L.A.
As their relationship develops, Sebastian’s career begins to climb when he joins former colleague Keith’s (John Legend) band while Mia’s resilience in the industry starts to wear thin, as she becomes increasingly frustrated with her acting career that seems to be going nowhere. All the while, there’s lots of singing and dancing — and it is absolutely dazzling from beginning to end.
Chazelle’s feature directorial debut, Whiplash, a musical-adjacent film, was a caustic, aggressive tale of ambition and abuse. With La La Land, he does a complete 180, serving dollops of Technicolored goodness that doesn’t bleed into cheeseball territory. Sure, there are spontaneous break-into-song moments, but it isn’t gimmicky or kitschy. Chazelle brilliantly fuses classic musical charm with modern sensibilities to create epic-scale numbers, as well as quieter, character-driven tunes that make the film pop and sing, so to speak.
With a remarkable score (that is poised to sweep the music categories during the Oscars), composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul sculpt a flawless soundtrack that is majestic, delightful, and optimistic. It all starts with the wildly energetic opening number “Another Day In The Sun,” an unforgettable 6-minute one-take wonder during a traffic jam on 110 freeway that will make L.A. residents wish all traffic jams were that enjoyable.
In its grand scope and scale, Chazelle brilliantly makes the film intimate and constantly keeps the story focused on Mia and Sebastian without missing a beat. It helps that this is the third time Stone and Gosling worked together (the two times before being Crazy. Stupid. Love and Gangster Squad) as the charismatic pair share an irresistible chemistry — and it helps that they can sing and dance well, too. Gosling is the embodiment of a wink and a smile as a Harry Connick Jr. type making the ladies swoon with his swagger and panache. But of the two, it’s Stone who does more of the heavy lifting when it comes to carrying the emotional weight of the film. As a struggling actress watching her boyfriend move ahead with his dream while she stays in one place gives her more to chew on and essentially makes it more about her journey. Having won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, it’s inevitable that she will have a spot on all the ballots of the major awards shows.
In a broader scope, La La Land aims to inspire via a story about following your dreams and the struggle and success that comes from hard work, determination, and passion. More than that, the movie is a love letter to Hollywood. At times, the film certainly romanticizes, yet it manages to stay away from the “small-town-girl-comes-to-Hollywood-to-make-it-big” corniness with playful jabs at life in the City of Angels where everyone “worships everything and values nothing.” La La Land gives its audience a peek into the lives of those trying to make it in Hollywood via pretentious industry parties, painful auditions, and the overpopulation of Priuses. But above all, it’s a love story about the connection between Mia and Sebastian.
Flowing with dreamy vibraphone tones and touched the melodic caress of the piano, Chazelle has created an instant classic with his starry-eyed musical spectacular. It’s pure Hollywood magic, which is why it’s going to be the film to beat come awards season.
Running time: 126 minutes
Dino-Ray Ramos watches too much TV, enjoys reality singing competitions and laughs inappropriately during dramatic films. He’s a fan of comedy, podcasts, and comedy podcasts. He’s a reformed comic book geek and thinks “The Goonies” is the best movie of all time. When he isn’t stuffing his face with a burrito, he’s thinking about his next trip to Disneyland.