Review: La La Land (TIFF 2016)
REVIEW: Could LA LA LAND mark the resurgence of the Hollywood musical? While there have been a few notably successful instances of full-on musicals hitting pay-dirt at the box office or with the academy, most of those are based on Broadway shows and have a built-in audience. LA LA LAND is a different beast, and one that should play handsome dividends come awards season. Many will compare this to THE ARTIST, but its really not like that film at all. That was a nostalgic look back, while LA LA LAND is thoroughly modern and very much a film of its era.
If anything, it’s reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s tortured NEW YORK, NEW YORK, but while Scorsese almost lost his mind trying to meld a seventies relationship drama to a jaunty, throwback forties-set musical, director Damien Chazelle makes it all look easy. It helps that even if the style of film-making may have it’s genesis in the Arthur Freed unit musicals from MGM in the late-forties/early fifties, it’s very much a contemporary tale that only could have been made in the 21st century and by someone like Chazelle. If his last film, WHIPLASH, put him on the map, LA LA LAND will shoot him into the stratosphere.
Watching those movies back to back, it’s evident Chazelle was toying with a certain jazz-beat/pace that he incorporates here in the musical numbers. It kicks-off with a sweeping number featuring singing commuters stuck in L.A gridlock that can’t help but cast a spell on you before the credits even roll. Using the old MGM 2:55:1 aspect ratio, LA LA LAND feels huge and epic despite what’s apparently a modest budget. With location shooting, eye-popping colors and toe-tapping jazz numbers (probably about ten or so in all), this is the kind of movie that deserves to be taken in as a theatrical experience, hence it’s ideal unveiling at premiere film fests like TIFF.
In their third pairing following CRAZY, STUPID LOVE and GANGSTER SQUAD, stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have developed uncanny chemistry. Both parts feel tailor-made, as if nobody but them could have ever been cast. As a free-wheeling jazz musician, Gosling plays a man who seems ripped-out of another era, right down to the tape-deck he listen to jazz cassettes on in his car. Moody but never sullen, he’s more Steve McQueen here than Gene Kelly, but he also does a mean soft-shoe when called-upon, and has a nice, soft voice even if it seems unlikely he’ll be cutting albums anytime soon. Don’t worry, given the kind of semi-improvised numbers we get here that type of voice is totally appropriate to the part.
As for Stone, if somehow you’ve yet to fall in love with her (as if) get ready to have your heart-broken here as she’s at her very best - maybe even Oscar worthy. She plays a young actress just hitting that point in her career where she’s considering packing it all in after too many rejections and too much time working at a café on the WB lot (a movie-only fantasy version where she works across the street from the same hotel window Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman sipped champagne at in CASABLANCA). Stone oozes star-quality, making the movie’s only stretch being that she could go unnoticed for so-long.
While it sounds maudlin and cliché, you’ll fall in-love with Gosling and Stone falling in-love, through their “meet-cute” at an eighties party where he plays keyboard on A-Ha’s “Take On Me” through their first real date at a revival of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (on 35mm of course). Over 125 minutes, their relationship hits its ups and downs, while the movie is never anything less than riveting, especially once Chazelle brings out the big guns and launches into a full-on extended ballet, like “Girl Hunt” in THE BAND WAGON or the finale of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS.
Gosling and Stone dominate the movie but Chazelle’s also peppered in a few nice bits, like a cameo by J.K Simmons as a piano bar owner and John Legend as a pop star wanting to corrupt Gosling with his successful pop jazz combo. Through it all though, you’ll know who the stars are and the two of them have really never been better. It’s impossible to imagine LA LA LAND not connecting in a big way with audiences and critics when it comes out later this year. Every fest, a movie comes out that just blows people away, and this year this is it. When Tom Hanks interrupts the press conference for his own (excellent) film to sing a rival movie’s praises, you know it’s good. LA LA LAND lives up to the hype and then some.
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