Okay Damien Chazelle, you have my attention. Whiplash was astounding and now you’re two for two. I’ve been hyped for the release of La La Land since it was announced to be your next film about a year ago, and I finally got the privilege to see it for myself, twice. I’ve been waiting and anticipating the wide release of this movie since it started screenings back in late summer/early fall. And now that I’ve seen it I can say it was so worth it. The first watching I wrote out my initial thoughts but felt it deserved another viewing. Everyone has raved about it for months, especially leading up to the wide release, and it’s rightly deserved, because La La Land is a fantastic film. It’s a breath of fresh air to see a modern director bring back an older style of film while still keeping it modern. La La Land has its own unique style, and its beautiful.
Being a visual person at heart, I highly enjoy the art of visual storytelling. It’s just very interesting to me to see a story told with no words, just actions and reactions between characters, camera, music, etc. There are a number of scenes that don’t need any words because the cinematography, characters and music tell all we need to know. One notable example is the planetarium scene. And with excellent cinematography La La Land brings, the visuals are outstanding. We have a different DOP in La La Land than in Whiplash, Linus Sandgren is his name. But man, where do I even start? He did such a great job, this film is so silky smooth, especially during the musical numbers.
Most of the songs in La La Land are done in one take, which is very impressive. I watched as the central object moved about the screen and how the eyes followed. Every character moves so fluidly across the screen, it makes for impressive and immersive experience. It’s similar to Birdman where there are very long takes, emulating a play. But also reminded me of the action scene in Mad Max: Fury Road when Furiosa and crew head to make the deal with Rock Riders. When moving from shot to shot, our eyes follow one object to another object. For an example of what I mean, watch this YouTube video. La La Land does kinda the same thing, just minus the cuts. The eye tracing in La La Land helps keep the focus on what is important in the frame. Especially when we get into big numbers, things can easily get confusing, but they aren’t. A prime example is the opening since we are moving from one character to another quickly, yet we never get lost.
Plus, La La Land is just gorgeous to look at. Almost every shot in La La Land is like a painting. During some of the still takes I inspected the framing began to notice how good it looks. And that’s the biggest complement I can give to the cinematography, it just makes La La Land look all the more gorgeous. Paired with the great screenplay and editing, I couldn’t help but fall in love. One very important aspect is the colors, which play a prominent role in the story. It’s interesting since more modern films tend to be under-saturated in color. La La Land really pops, there is one notable scene where Emma Stone and her roommates do a musical number towards the beginning. Each of her friends wearing a dress of a particular color, except for Stone. We move from one roommate to another, with such ease. And when one roommate takes over the scene for a brief moment, the colors change to whatever color that roommate is associated with. And it’s not just the color of the dress, but also the color of the room and some of the objects they handle. It’s a very interesting way of presenting visuals to the audience. Another example is the first song between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Like on the cover, Stone is wearing a yellow dress and Gosling is wearing a white shirt and black pants. And with the purple, yellow and black background, it’s so pretty to look at. The eyes follow so easily because of the complementary colors on screen to guide the focus to each character of importance.
One very interesting old technique used in La La Land was the use of vignette. In older films, vignettes were used to black out parts of the screen to draw the audience’s focus to a central object, for example a line in a newspaper, or a character in the frame. For some of the musical scenes the entire screen will go black with only the main character visible via spotlight, drawing all the focus to that character (which technically isn’t considered a vignette, I guess). But the older, vintage style also goes for the title card, some scene transitions, cinematography, etc. It was cool to see a modern film using older techniques. The long takes really gives this film a vintage feel. It pays homage to the older style of films while keeping it in the modern era and adding some modern twists to it as well to keep it fresh.
The vintage feel is also evident in the music as well. Once again the music is centered around Jazz, just like in Whiplash. And, once again, Justin Hurwitz does a fantastic job at composing because the music in La La Land is astounding. Usually I’m not big on musicals, mainly because I just don’t watch many. But, man, La La Land wasn’t what I was expecting. After every number, I waited anxiously for the next song. I was so curious to see what the next one would be. And whenever there was a song, it felt like it was the right time for there to be one, it felt natural. There were no songs that felt weren’t needed or were just wasting time. The music paired with the excellent cinematography and great choreography made for some unforgettable musical numbers. I loved the score for La La Land so much that once I got home from the theatre I purchased the soundtrack. I am listening to it as I write this review. This is a great score. I can’t complement it enough.
It’s probably important to point out that La La Land does have a jazzy center to it. I guess that’s self-evident if you read the IMDb plot summary. But, funny enough, I used to be apathetic towards jazz. I just didn’t get what the big deal was. It wasn’t until I watched Whiplash and the Cowboy Bebop anime that I found the joy in listening to jazz, both of which I watched around the same time. I understood why those who love jazz, love jazz. I understood what it could be and began to understand the influence it has on other genres of music, and now, filmmaking. There is a theme in both Whiplash and La La Land (and probably Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, if I were to guess), which is about the importance of jazz. And if you didn’t feel it in Whiplash with the conversation between Fletcher and Andrew, you will in La La Land. There is a conversation between Gosling and Stone about the importance of jazz and that it’s not just the elevator music you often hear, but so much more. Both Chazelle films take one very important scene to explain why it’s important to the characters and why it’s important to the culture of music. They bring up the issue that jazz is dying and why it needs to survive. I resonated more with the conversation in La La Land than in Whiplash and although it was only one short scene, it said everything it needed to say for the audience to get the picture. Chazelle wants to bring jazz back, even though it’s a dying genre of music. It’s important and needs to survive.
It’s evident now that Chazelle is trying to make a statement through his movies about jazz. He’s making movies about the different styles of it, at least from Whiplash and La La Land. Whiplash is mainly about swing jazz, very fast tunes that are heavy on drums and its ties to making an intense and white-knuckling film. La La Land has more smooth jazz in it, but there’s still some swing there, telling the story about love and its association with the style. Both show how jazz changes people’s lives while still telling a good story with it. The execution is very different from other movies, just like jazz. So it is very evident that Chazelle has a love and a passion for jazz music that it comes out in his films in more ways than just the score, but how the story is told and in the character’s personalities. Jazz music, and music in general, is the central idea of the movie.
The music even goes down to the piano sequences Ryan Gosling had to do. I heard he had to practice 6 days a week, 3 hours a day learning pieces on the piano. All of the piano pieces were recordings of Gosling’s performances and they are very impressive. He really shows it off when the Mia and Sebastian’s theme is played, which is quite often. It’s a beautiful theme. And Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling work very well together and have some great chemistry. And the relationship between them is so sweet and down to earth. It feels like a real relationship, which is what it’s going for. I feel Stone and Gosling were the right choices for these roles. You really get a sense of their growing relationship from when they start to become a part of the other’s life. And Chazelle went for a traditional type of relationship, and tells a lot of the heavier emotions through visuals (once again, the planetarium scene as an example). I felt more for their relationship than most romances that I’ve seen, at least modern ones. La La Land does a very fine job at building the relationship between Gosling and Stone.
Lately I’ve been reading a book titled The Anatomy of Story which gives some great insight to creating and designing your very own narrative and what makes a good story. One tip it gives is a good story’s events and situations shouldn’t be created, but should occur. Confusing, I know. But what the author is saying is that the movie should be able to write itself with its central idea and events should come from the story, creating its own conflicts and situations, rather than making situations. It needs to be a natural progression of the story. If you’ve listened to the Silence of the Lambs podcast Corbin and I did a while back, I said that Silence flows very, very well. La La Land also flows very, very well. The scene to scene transitions helped move the plot along. There were no scenes that took me out of the movie, or I felt weren’t needed. Everything has a purpose in the overall story and moving from one scene to another felt organic, as if it was supposed to go that direction (bringing back that idea of a natural progression). This is a story that writes itself. It feels like a jazz piece. La La Land in particular feels like a piece of smooth jazz, and if you listen to theme of Mia and Sebastian it’s a dead giveaway (which I would advise against if you haven’t seen the movie). La La Land flows like water, one scene rolls over into the next with ease, it’s a work of art, really.
Great editing like this that is what makes La La Land so enjoyable. It really sucks you into its world and tells you a simple story about a relationship between two people wanting to be successful by following their dreams. And La La Land flows so naturally because it’s edited so well I didn’t want it to end. Once I left the theatre I wanted to go back and watch it again right there. When it finished for the first time, I was blown away. La La Land was so different, yet it hit me at home. I, personally, have been in somewhat of the same situation as Sebastian and Mia. And watching it move from scene to scene only reigned me in even more, because that’s what happened to me. Of course not in the same way as the main characters, but more as a metaphor. I connected with this film on a personal level. It hit too close to home, and in the best way possible. I knew I would need to watch La La Land again to critique it further than from one watching. I usually always judge my final thoughts of the film on subsequent viewings. And I have to say, I liked La La Land even more the second time around. I noticed more details that I missed the first time. Making the movie all the more engaging for me.
So simple, yet so effective is a phrase I would use to describe La La Land. But a simple plot doesn’t always mean a bad film. It’s the execution of the story here that’s so impressive. It’s about the journey and the experience, the real-life scenarios than it simply being a movie. Damien Chazelle does a very, very good job at making a film simple with a lot behind it. Both Whiplash and La La Land have two main characters in which the story revolves around, and that’s all he needs to craft a great film. I’ve seen a lot of very good films this year (not all were released in 2016), but La La Land was a movie that hit me the hardest. Everything about this film works. The music, the cinematography, the conflicts and events, the story, the characters, they all work together in such harmony to bring together a very well-made and great film.
In the conversation between Gosling and Stone when they begin talking about the importance of jazz, there is a line that Gosling says about a live jazz band. It’s always new, and at different points of the piece a member will hijack the music and go on their own trip (basically a solo). La La Land does the same. It moves from on central aspect to another, as if it were someone in the band going on their own trip. Whether it be in the visuals, or the choreography, or the singing, or the colors. Everything in La La Land has its own moment to shine, and it all works together to craft a piece of music that is fresh and new. It’s unlike any other musical or movie out today. It’s an original piece of art from a director that is passionate about relationship between music and film, evident in the relationship between Sebastian and Mia.
La La Land is a film that has no extraneous details, whether that be scenes that are out of place, or details about a character that is never touched on again, etc. Everything in La La Land has a reason for existing and it all helps in shaping and presenting its story. La La Land does everything I look for in a film, and that says quite a lot. Of all the movies I’ve watched this year, La La Land is the best film I’ve seen in 2016. I can’t think of anything that I didn’t like about this film, everything works so well. I’ve talked this film to death without spoiling it. If you haven’t had the chance to see it in a theatre, I would highly, highly recommend it. La La Land, to me, is more than just a movie. La La Land is a journey and an experience. It’s what every film should strive to be. I can’t help but love it. It is one that not only asks for audience participation, but also rewards the audience on repeat viewings. It’s a fantastic and well-made film. It may not be for everyone, but I think everyone can learn something from this film.I’m giving La La Land a 10/10 and the highest of highest of highest of recommends.