Sometimes life isn’t fair. This isn’t news to anyone, I know, but a remarkable reminder of this is in theaters this holiday season. Damien Chazelle is a bright-eyed filmmaker at the ripe young age of 31 with one academy award nominated film under his belt already in ‘Whiplash’. This young fellow decided to follow up this incredible low-key gem with ‘La La Land’ this year which is, SPOILER ALERT, one of my favorites of the year. I would be foolish to not mention that this sophomore effort is a sprawling musical filled original material that is an ode to the genre and to Hollywood classics that paved the way for it in the best way possible and I think that's unfair.
All jokes aside with the spoiler mention above, I will be sure to avoid these below to the best of my ability. From the moment this film starts, Chazelle is letting you know how unapologetically musical this film is. With a highway loaded with cars in standstill traffic, each and every owner jumps out to break into choreographed song and dance about their dreams and the city they hope to achieve them in. This is one of the more confident openings I can remember in recent years as Chazelle uses his knack for color palette, musical composition and choreography to let you know you are in good hands. This opening also shows the audience that despite what some of the marketing material may have led you to believe, this story takes place in modern day.
It’s easy to get lost in time while watching ‘La La Land’ until Chazelle will smash cut to the car alarm of a Prius or some other reminder of the modern era but these jarring realizations only occur because of Chazelle’s absolute pitch-perfect recreations of the mood in the musicals that undoubtedly inspired him. This isn’t to say that ‘La La Land’ slavishly follows in the steps of its forefathers even though there is a basic story and mood on display throughout that has been done before. There are plenty of unique spins and flourishes on tropes we have all seen to give this film an identity all of its own. These include a depiction of dreamers in LA chasing stardom but the story never shies away from the struggles that are real in these stories. Add to this the natural vocals of both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone throughout layered in between their genuine moments together and you have a familiar story and format that is able to feel original at the same time.
If I were to muster up any complaints about this film it would be that while Chazelle is able to nail both the narrative and musical moments on their own, the pacing of these could have used a little polish. The second act of ‘La La’ has very little in the way of song and dance and this is noticeable if not nearly a problem. This is only a problem because of the execution of each of these aspects on their own and it feels a shame to be robbed of either of them for too long. When this flaw is added to the fact that this is one of the whitest films of 2016 in terms of cast, I won’t quite be able to put it at number one for the year if even the top five, but even still that placement is a struggle.
‘La La Land’ is a film that isn’t made any more, let alone by 31 year old writer/directors calling the shots for only the second time with a feature. The team involved found a fan and spokesman in me, someone who is historically lukewarm on musicals, and I am glad to sing the praises of this film for all to hear. There are plenty of ups and downs throughout in regards to the emotions brought on and this is done with a wide range of skills that I can’t wait to see again and again.