Friday, December 16, 2016

Review: La La Land

by Patrick Bromley

I have written at some length before about a type of film I have dubbed the "exploding heart movie," which is a movie that speaks directly to us in such a way so as to cause a kind of emotional overload, filling us with so much love and joy that it feels like we're going to burst. Everyone had different exploding heart movies, and everyone's exploding heart moments in their exploding heart movies are different. This, of course, is because we are all unique and beautiful snowflakes.

La La Land is writer/director Damien Chazelle's exploding heart movie, designed not just to speak to the emotions of the audience -- and boy, does it ever -- but to lay bare all of the joy and passion the filmmaker feels about making movies. The film has been described as a love letter to Los Angeles or to classic Hollywood musicals. I guess it's those things. To me, La La Land is a love letter to anyone who loves movies. It's Chazelle saying "I am lucky to make movies. I love movies. You, the audience, loves movies. Let's fucking love this movie together." It works. I fucking love this movie.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in this Gangster Squad reunion as Sebastian and Mia, two budding artists trying to make it in Los Angeles. He's a piano player who dreams of opening his own old-school jazz club, in the meantime trying to get by playing Christmas carols in restaurants and filling in on keyboards for bad '80s cover bands. She dreams of being an actress, but like all would-be actresses is working as a barista in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot. They meet, then meet again. After meeting a few times, they realize they like one another -- and, better yet, inspire one another to be better and reach further than either is doing on their own. Before you can say "they probably fall in love and sing and dance," they fall in love and sing and dance.

Yes, La La Land is a musical -- a sprawling, wildly ambitious, gorgeously photographed and perfectly choreographed musical. From the opening number, an astonishing single-take number in stuck traffic on the L.A. freeway, to "A Lovely Night," one of the most charming first dates in memory, to the breathtaking and gravity-defying "Planetarium" to the show-stopping "Audition" (the number that is likely to singlehandedly score Emma Stone a Best Actress nomination), nearly all of the musical sequences achieve one kind of transcendence or another. I won't argue that all of the songs themselves are great; there are standouts like "City of Stars," but others that faded from memory moments after they had finished. What does not fade is the exuberant energy with which Chazelle (and choreographer Mandy Moore [not that Mandy Moore]) stage the numbers, using them sometimes to advance the story but mostly to express emotions being felt by the characters that are too big to be expressed in words. This is the beauty of musicals, and what separates them from more "realistic" stories.
"But what if I don't like musicals?" you ask. That is your right. You are a snowflake. While I cannot predict what you, reader, will or will not enjoy (nor would I want to), I can say that I'm not 100% sure I love musicals either. But I do respond to both the emotion and the technical execution of every number in La La Land, nearly all of which made my heart explode more than anything else this year. Sometimes I was swept up in the beauty of the photography by Linus Sandgren, who shoots Los Angeles in a way that is painterly and romanticized while still capturing a realism and familiarity that other movies fail to achieve. Often I was moved by Chazelle's simultaneous expression of control and bravado -- he's made a movie bursting with big feelings that radiate off the screen but has done so in a way that is expertly staged and timed and edited. I've always liked movies that take big swings, and La La Land is nothing but big swings. Like Paul Thomas Anderson graduating from Hard Eight to Boogie Nights, Damien Chazelle has cashed in all the goodwill earned by his Oscar-nominated debut Whiplash to make a movie that is bigger and riskier but which once again concerns itself first and foremost with expressing an emotional state through form.
I know that La La Land isn't going to have the same effect on everyone. That's true of any movie, but especially true of exploding heart movies. For some, the story may seem too slight and the emotional beats too familiar. Maybe these things are true. Beyond the romance at the center, the film has a lot to say about the need to create, about the lasting impact of art, about the ways we can draw strength from those around us to do the things we maybe couldn't do without making these emotional connections. Besides, I have a hard time accepting the idea that human happiness is "slight," and while we may recognize the emotions being expressed on screen, I'm not sure I've seen them expressed in quite this way. Chazelle cuts right to the core of one our most basic emotions but then dresses it up in some of the most exciting, buoyant filmmaking I've seen all year. La La Land floats for two hours and refuses to come down even after the credits have rolled. This is classic movie magic.


  1. I live in Jacksonville and we don't get it until January 6! We're a big enough city for an NFL team but not big enough to get movies until they open everywhere lol

  2. Saw it last night and was blown away with how amazing this movie is. I knew what it was going into it and it still surpassed my expectations. I straight up loved this movie, I know I loved it after the opening number.

    What's interesting too is the different takeaways from the movie. My wife is a modern dancer and had to move on from her dreams so while she also loved the movie it was more heartbreaking to her than hopeful. On the other hand, we're at a point in our lives were we're about to make some big changes and this movie inspired me to make the best of them. It made me hopeful and that's exactly the kind of movie I think we all need right now.

  3. I went into watching this just expecting a fun, beautiful, and well-acted movie that would make me smile. I got all that but I wasn't prepared for the barrage of emotion I'd experience throughout the course of the movie. I'd say this movie hit me in deeply personal ways, but then in some respects I feel like a lot of what it has to say is so universal that most people should be able relate to it on some level (for instance there's a lot in here about the path not taken).

    I also really need to mention that I know that Emma Stone is cute and charming in just about every movie she's in, but my God does she take that to such an incredible level here. She's a leading lady in the mold of those from the Golden Age of Cinema. And while I've always appreciated Gosling as an actor, this year he's managed to star in two movies that I hope to be rewatching for years to come.

    Whiplash is a movie that I really love in the moment, but doesn't completely hold up for me when stepping back and looking at what it's trying to say (which isn't to say I dislike Whiplash, I still really love watching it). La La Land absolutely does not have that problem for me and I'm really looking forward to whatever Chazelle does next.

  4. My God - I love when you write about exploding heart movies. My heart explodes all over again. #schmoopy <3

  5. k how am I supposed to wait until 7:30 tonight to see this after reading this review. #teeming

  6. Just tried to go and see it but there was only one seat left in the row so I opted out. I guess I should have showed up earlier.

  7. Great review, really pegged what I felt watching it as well. Just aces!

  8. Just saw it earlier today and I really liked it, though the were times where I wish it would have stayed as a straight narrative instead on going full on musical. But everything else was great!

  9. I just saw this, and had not yet read your review, but the whole time I was watching it, I was thinking, "Damien Chazelle has been waiting to make this film his whole life, and it shows."

  10. Just saw it las last nigjt, and fell a little in love. Usually I don't like a movie or book that constantly throws emotion at you. But La La Land is like a big emersive warm hug of a movie. It wraps the emotion around you. So yeah I liked it also.

  11. Enjoyed La La Land as a collection of scenes and moments and music and dancing and laughs and emotion and singing, but I wish the film as a whole was a little tighter; there's some unnecessary lag in there. For me it's Very Good, which is just shy of Great.

    Remember the scene in Whiplash where Miles Teller preemptively breaks up with his girlfriend, citing events that have not even happened yet? La La Land plays out that relationship instead of cutting it short. As if Gosling is the same character but (this time) chooses to stay in the relationship and we get to see what happens. I'll bet that's a theme we'll see in future Chazelle films: dedication to one's craft and its effect on personal relationships.