2016 was a fantastic year for film and there’s so many movies that deserve recognition, but they’re out of luck because La La Land is steamrolling its way through awards season. It broke the record for number of Golden Globe wins, it won the BAFTA, its going to be nominated for double-digit Oscars, and if you go on IMDB and start scrolling through the honorifics, it literally takes five minutes. I’ve resisted going because…..I really don’t like musicals and I have lived in and haaaaate Los Angeles, and it doesn’t matter because Damien Chazelle has followed up his amazingly good debut film Whiplash with a minor movie miracle. It’s worthy of the Best Picture Oscar it already has a lock on, and coming in this year, that says quite a lot.
La La Land, with the exception of some of the tech, is a movie that if you told me it was made in 1956 I wold have an easier time believing than 2016. From a Panavision opening straight into a musical number on the freeways of California (where I can tell you from experience do NOT break into freewheeling song and dance) to Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers type dance numbers. This isn’t a movie adaptation of a Broadway musical. This is an original musical for the screen the likes of which I honestly cannot think of a single instance to compare it to until you get back into the 1960’s when musicals slowly faded out of style when the cinema verite movement of the 1970’s all but wiped them out. It’s new to the last three generations of film goers, not because its new, but because it’s so old you never thought you’d see something like this again.
Damien Chazelle, just as he did Whiplash, wrote and directed La La Land with Justin Hurwitz who provided so much of Whiplash’s music returning for the best score of the year and collaboration on some truly beautiful songs. Every great musical needs that signature anthem and La La Land has two in “City of Stars” (which won the Golden Globe for Best Song) and, what I think is even better, Emma Stone’s “The Fools Who Dream”. Chazelle won me over incrementally through the film from going into it really solely based on knowing it was going to get Best Picture, but slowly charming me (because this movie is so charming it’s ridiculous) to an end so brilliant that my opinion of the picture probably upped an entire point from Emma Stone’s audition until the credits rolled. Whiplash’s ending was equally great, and directors who know how to stick a landing are rare (Nolan is probably the best at it) and that Chazelle has done it so well in just two films is amazing.
While the film has a giant cast (aside from very nice small roles for JK Simmons and John Legend), the movie is really just all Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling and a year in the life of these star-crossed lovers (yep, roll your eyes, I’m doing it while I’m writing it, but its an Old Hollywood staple). This is easily the best performance of Emma Stone’s career and she’s a much stronger singer than Ryan Gosling, but with his songs Chazelle realizes that and gives him quieter, softer parts that, like the jazz he so clearly loves (as he’s woven it into the fabric of his movies) the pieces make the whole. Gosling is not one of my favorite actors, but he and Stone have done several movies together and they have great chemistry, which is vital when your entire film hinges on people loving these two characters separately and together, enough that you get accustomed to elaborately staged and choreographed musical numbers breaking out.
It’s not hard to see why the film is winning all the awards it is, aside from its quality, it IS how Los Angeles sees itself (whereas LA Confidential and Straight Outta Compton are much closer to how Los Angeles actually is). It’s a love letter to Old Hollywood, to a more glamorous and idealized era of film (really the only knock I have against the picture is a little bit of language, which would be nothing normally in a PG-13 film, but in THIS film snap you out of the spell Chazelle otherwise masterfully weaves because set in today or not, they just don’t go with the spirit of the film). Every technical aspect of film is brought to bear to do some things just not possible back when this type of film was common, but costumes, art direction, sound, brilliant use of color and cinematography work together to bring what is honestly a masterful piece of filmmaking to life.
Musicals are still not my thing. I will watch Rogue One a hundred times, and I couldn’t tell you if I’ll watch La La Land again from start to finish, but La La Land is a better film. I don’t like it more, but as a piece of movie making, it’s astounding. And I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had the music stuck in my head ever since I left the theater. Whiplash was a small band number where the movie as a whole was nearly overwhelmed by JK Simmons’ Oscar-winning performance. La La Land is a full-on orchestral masterpiece. I don’t have any idea what Chazelle can do to make movies that equal these first two, but he’ll have me in the theater every time he tries for long, long time.
SECOND VIEWING UPDATE: I give up; this is the best film of 2016. Watching it a second time, knowing what I was getting into, I appreciated the craft even more and the soundtrack hasn’t gotten out of my head since it charmed its way in weeks ago. If this isn’t a 10, I don’t know what is, so my original review has been lifted a quarter point.