Monday, December 26, 2016

LA LA LAND: A Cinematic Song & Dance Delight From Start To Finish

Now playing at a multiplex or art house near you:

LA LA LAND (Dir. Damien Chazelle, 2016)

Within moments of this film’s big opening scene – an impressively choreographed production number involving dozens, maybe hundreds, of commuters singing and dancing to the joyous original song “Another Day of Sun” atop a gridlocked Los Angeles overpass – you know you are experiencing something really special.

For Damien Chazelle’s third feature is the definition of a modern movie musical – one that respects the “follow your dreams” tropes of the golden age of Hollywood, but puts a fresh-faced spin on it with by acknowledging that living “happily ever after” may not happen the way you imagined.

After that lavish, invigorating opening number, in the same traffic we meet Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who pisses off jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in the convertible behind her because she was too busy running lines for an audition to notice that the cars ahead of her have moved forward. Sebastian repeatedly honks as he passes her, and she responds by flipping him the bird. Not exactly a meet cute.

Mia works as a barista at a coffee shop on a big studio lot where she’s constantly starstruck by her famous customers and dreams to be one of them someday.

But that’s something that’s going to have to wait we see as Mia flubs her audition, then finds that her car has been towed while she and her roommates (Callie Hernandez, Sonoyo Mizuno, and Jessica Rothe) were at a party in the Hollywood hills that was supposed to cheer her up but only ended up making her feel lonely anyway.

On Mia’s walk home, she is enticed to enter a restaurant/night club named Lipton’s because she overhears an intriguing tune being played by the club’s new house pianist, who, of course, is Sebastian.

The film then flashes back to Mia and Sebastian’s first meeting in the opening traffic jam, and we see the last day from his perspective. We learn that hardcore jazzhead Sebastian is a classic struggling musician archetype who lives with his snarky sister Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt) as he floats from one humiliating low paying gig to another.

Sebastian’s latest gig at Lipton’s has his boss Bill (J.K. Simmons) forcing him to play Christmas standards, forbidding him from playing freeform jazz. Before long, Sebastian can’t help but improvise which gets him fired but gains him a fan in Mia. The angered artist though ignores her as he storms out, and we have our second failed meet cute.

They run into each other again at a pool party where Mia is supremely amused to see Sebastian playing synth-keyboards in an incredibly cheesy ‘80s cover band. So much so that she requests “I Ran” by A Flock of Seagulls to torture him.

Sebastian confronts her afterwards and before long they are engaged in endless flirtation as they walk down a dreamy moonlit street in the Hollywood hills with a gorgeous view of the LA skyline. This is the backdrop for another delightful song and dance number, “A Lovely Night,” highlighted by such witty lines as “we stumble on a view that’s tailor made for two, what a shame those two are you and me.”

When he shows up at her workplace the next day, Mia gives Sebastian a tour around the Warner Brothers lot. Upon her declaring that she hates jazz, he whisks her off to a club to try and convert her, and also reveal that his big dream is to own a jazz club himself someday.

Our protagonist couple falls for each through multiple montage song and dance numbers, including a particularly stirring one in which they visit the planetarium at the Griffith Observatory after seeing the location at a revival screening of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.

While Mia works on a one-woman play in hopes of kick starting her career, Sebastian joins his friend Keith’s (John Legend) band the Messengers, both pursuing their dreams but with mixed results as Sebastian hates the commercial pop direction of his new outfit.

Gosling, who got his start as a child actor singing as a mouseketeer in a revival of Disney Channel’s Mickey Mouse Club, shows off his talents as a vocalist, pianist (that’s really him on the keys not a piano double), and dancer here with buckets of charm. Sebastian may be Gosling’s sharpest and most irresistible role yet.

Stone, likewise, pulls out the stops as a triple threat, matching Gosling’s moves beat by beat. I saw Stone make her Broadway debut in “Cabaret” a few years back so I knew she had the chops, but she doubly impressed me throughout this endlessly adorable film.

Our good looking stars are surrounded by gorgeous scenery, lushly shot by Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren (AMERICAN HUSTLE, JOY), and a dazzlingly colorful production design by longtime Quentin Tarantino collaborator David Wasco.

The score made up of over a dozen instantly memorable original songs composed by Justin Hurwitz, who worked with Chazelle on his previous two films (GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH, WHIPLASH), with perfectly on-point lyrics written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is the icing on the cake.

It all paves the way to an absolutely stunning, showstopping ending - see it before somebody spoils it for you.

Sure to make the upper region of my best films of 2016 list, LA LA LAND is a fun, toe-tapping, romantic, life-affirming, cinematic delight from start to finish. It was hard to stop smiling the whole time. In their third film together (CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE and GANGSTER SQUAD were the first two), Gosling and Stone have proved themselves to be worthy of being America’s top screen duo sweethearts.

A blast of a spectacular yet intimate feeling big-screen musical is exactly what we need right now as there’s a strong sense that there’s bleakness on the horizon.

Until then, let Ryan and Emma sing and dance your troubles away - they are definitely up to the task.

More later...

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