Rated PG-13

128 Minutes

Released December 16

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is a story put to music rather than a “musical”. Don’t go into the film expecting an elaborate “Grease”, “West Side Story” or 1930’s Busby Berkeley extravaganza. La La Land is truly an ode to Los Angeles, still a city of dreams, even in our complex times, and in spite of its numerous shortcomings. The story itself is about dreams – those realized and those that fail, a fairy tale brought down to earth, about not giving up on the world you envision. We are going to need more movies like this now.

The opening scene is one of the best-ever musical numbers on film. It depicts today’s lifestyle in LA – commuters stuck on the feeder ramp between two freeways. Instead of succumbing to angry grimaces, the drivers burst into glorious song and dance. The scene communicates at once the sun-filled happiness of life in Los Angeles and the hidden difficulty of surviving in its frenzied environment. The characters in this scene are so colorful and vivid that I had hoped to see them again in the story. Sadly, that did not happen. However, the theme established in this opening overture is the heart of the story that ensues.

Composer Justin Hurwitz has done an amazing job with the songs, the lyrics and the jazz music that is an integral part of the story. The dream scenes are magical and rich thanks to production designer David Wasco. At the Q&A following the screening, Hurwitz and writer/director Chazelle noted that they met at Harvard and played in a band, Hurwitz on keyboards and Chazelle on drums. Chazelle’s previous film, the highly acclaimed Whiplash, was about a jazz drummer. Chazelle and Hurwitz were inspired to make La La Land by their mutual love for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), a Cannes Grand Prize winner driven by its story and saturated in music (one of my favorite films of all time).

In a sense, stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone portray their own lives. Gosling, an accomplished jazz guitarist who once played in a band, delivers a performance that is heartfelt and low key. His career got its start when he beat out 17,000 auditioners for a spot in the Mickey Mouse Club. Chazelle and Hurwitz were impressed with Gosling’s commitment to learning jazz piano well enough to play the elaborate jazz scores for camera. There are no CGI hands or piano doubles. Stone once made a PowerPoint presentation for her parents to persuade them to let her move from Phoenix to LA to pursue a career as an actress. There were many disappointments before she “made it”, which inform her character in this story. Her poignant rendition of the “Audition Song” late in the film is incredibly moving and so true. John Legend also appears as the leader of a jazz-rock band. His acting is solid and the musical performance of the band is a highlight.

La La Land is a must-see for everyone who has ever lived in LA or dreamed of moving here.

 

Kathryn Whitney Boole has spent most of her life in the entertainment industry, which is the backdrop for remarkable adventures with extraordinary people. She is a Talent Manager with Studio Talent Group in Santa Monica. kboole@gmail.com. For previously published reviews see https://kwboole.wordpress.com