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Film review: 'La La Land'

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I was in the bag for "La La Land" from the moment I heard news that Damien Chazelle would be directing a completely original musical tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. As a huge fan of Chazelle's last film, the jazz thriller "Whiplash," and a general sucker for movie musicals of just about every stripe, "La La Land" instantly became the film I was anticipating more than any other release this year.

An ambitiously vibrant, often dazzling pastiche of great movie musicals -- from the work of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to "Singin' in the Rain" and "West Side Story" -- Chazelle's film is practically impossible to dislike. Bursting with color, enthusiasm, and optimism, it seems like exactly the sort of movie the dreary world could use right about now. But while there's plenty to love, there are also flaws that can't easily be dismissed; enough that I had trouble feeling the elation I'd desperately wanted to feel as I left the theater.

Things start off in spectacular fashion with a splashy opening number set during a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway. The camera swoops past stopped cars as the drivers emerge one by one, decked out in primary colors, dancing on car hoods, and singing of the dreams of stardom that led them to the sun-dappled West Coast. A heartfelt love letter to those artists, lovers, and dreamers, the plot of "La La Land" revolves around the swooning romance between Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz musician, and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, as they strive to achieve their dreams in modern-day Los Angeles.

Mia works in a café on the Warner Bros. studio lot, giving her a torturous proximity to the Hollywood dreams she seems further and further away from achieving with every failed audition. Meanwhile, Sebastian is fired from his job playing piano at a restaurant after he refuses to stick to the playlist of Christmas standards set for him by the establishment's owner (played by J.K. Simmons, the Oscar-winning star of "Whiplash"). In screwball fashion, the pair first meet during a minor bout of road rage while stuck in that opening traffic jam, and keep meeting until it seems clear that the fates have conspired to bring them together.

Mia decides (at Sebastian's suggestion) to write her own one-woman show, a vehicle that can show off her talents and potentially get her noticed by the right people, while he takes a job with a touring band led by an old pal (John Legend). It's a gig that earns him money, but feels like selling out his ideals, even if it will help him raise the necessary funds to open the jazz club he so desperately wants.

Two artistic souls, Sebastian and Mia seem perfect for one another. But their quest to find creative fulfillment puts strain on their relationship. Still, while the pair suffer some setbacks, they never struggle too much -- I'd even say they have a relatively easy time, in the scheme of things. Once the two actually get together, the film settles into a more conventional form; with lengthy stretches between songs, the middle section of the film starts to feel like any other generic onscreen romance.

Chazelle does make great use of Gosling and Stone's considerable chemistry together, which has been demonstrated in films both good ("Crazy, Stupid Love") and considerably less so ("Gangster Squad"). But despite their chemistry, they feel somewhat unevenly matched here. I appreciate and admire the effort Gosling clearly put into the role, nailing the dance choreography and learning piano well enough that Chazelle doesn't have to resort to using cutaways, or only showing him from the back -- or even worse, as just a pair of hands. But all that effort shows: by looking at his face, you can tell he's working like hell to pull it off. (It also doesn't help between the two leads, Gosling has the weaker voice.)

In contrast, with her open, expressive face and those huge eyes that convey oceans of empathy, Stone seems made to star in movie musicals. She also fares better vocally; as Mia gradually finds her voice, getting bolder in her career, so too does Stone display more strength as a singer.

"La La Land" isn't all whimsy and jazz hands, though. In capturing the vibe of movie musicals past, the film also ends up carrying over a bit of the retrograde gender roles and racial politics that come along with them. There's a definite sense that Mia wouldn't continue on in her career without Sebastian giving her the push she really needs. It's a little frustrating that he seems to be the major driving force behind Mia's success, as though she doesn't have enough initiative on her own to really make it.

Most difficult to swallow is Sebastian's self-appointed role as the White Savior of jazz, and there's something uncomfortable about seeing Gosling sitting in among a group of black musicians, believing himself the one "true" musician of the bunch (or at least the only one concerned with preserving the legacy of jazz). Treatment of race throughout the movie is hard to ignore. The film fills its backgrounds with minorities, only to repeatedly shove them off to the side so the white leads can take center stage.

Another clear inspiration are the sung-through musicals of Jacques Demy's -- most notably "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" -- and "La La Land" shares that film's melancholy heart. But that innate sadness is offset by the design sensibility, where everyday settings are given a Technicolor pop through costuming, production design, and lighting. As the film moves into its musical numbers, the light seems to ebb and flow, giving the impression that the film is alive with energy.

Chazelle's elaborately choreographed camerawork often makes it feel as though his camera is acting as a second dance partner to both Gosling and Stone, including during a lovely sequence through the Griffith Observatory. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren's lensing is deserving of the heaps of awards it will likely receive.

Justin Hurwitz's fantastic, jazz-fueled score does as much (if not more) of the heavy-lifting as Chazelle's camera. Even Chazelle seems so enamored by Hurwitz's contributions that he sometimes allows the orchestrations to overpower the vocals.

If it seems that though I'm being hard on the film (and I do absolutely recommend "La La Land"), it's because I so desperately wanted to love it wholeheartedly. Crucially, the movie does stick the landing, and despite all my quibbles, the ending is magnificent. A lengthy, impeccably staged dream ballet number, this sequence was everything I wanted the film to be. And while I can't help wishing that every bit of the film had been pushed as far as those final 20 minutes, in those moments "La La Land" at last becomes everything I'd hoped it would be.

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