Review: “La La Land”

Posted by Michael Parsons on December 12, 2016 in / No Comments

 

It might be a little early in Damien Chazelle’s filmmaking career to call the movie his magnum opus, but “La La Land” has all the signifiers of a modern classic. This reviewer is not easily taken by the movie-musical—in fact, it’s usually the opposite—but I’ve seen it twice now and it only seems to be getting better. With “Whiplash” under his belt (one of last year’s best films), drummer-turned-director Chazelle and editor Tom Cross took a year to trim his passion project to near perfection. A mesmerizing, surreal  L.A. love story, this is the third pairing of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and it’s as if their on-screen chemistry has been building to this all along. 

The duet “City of Stars” and Stone’s solo “Audition” highlight the soundtrack of  “La La Land”, a story about a barista/aspiring actress (Stone) and  starving jazz pianist (Gosling) bent on opening his own club. They first make eye contact during gridlock/road rage on the freeway, which DP Linus Sandgren and Production Designer David Wasco use for the immersive la_la_land_-_official_stills_-_courtesy_of_28c29_lionsgate_-_005opening sequence “Another Day in the Sun”  (a bit “Rent”-esque for my taste, but the choreography is mind-blowing).

The rest of the movie focuses on the central characters; Chazelle’s colorful, quasi-Los Angeles is the stage for this present-day romance. But their meeting is elusive, as they literally bump into each other when Gosling’s Sebastian storms out of a dinner club; he’s just been fired by  manager (mandatory J.K. Simmons) for straying from the establishment’s  painfully dull Christmas song-only protocol.  Meanwhile, Stone’s Mia gets a harsh dose of Hollywood when a casting director answers her cell phone mid-audition.

When the sparks finally do fly, “La La Land” breaks into dance routines that are every bit as elegant and whimsical as the Gene Kelly-era classics that inspired them. And something unusual happened during this time of year. I found myself uplifted—ethereal but not too far off the ground (with one notable exception), the film is a burst of fresh air in a season of serious fare. What else can I say? This is certainly an experience. Gosling and Stone can sing and dance, and the film’s retro-aesthetic, captured by Sandgren in bona fide Cinemascope, whisks us off to the titular fairytale setting of big dreams. Yet, Sebastian and Mia face modern-day problems, reminding us that “La La Land” is really a state of mind.

Opens Friday, December 16th

—M. Parsons

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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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