La La Land [2016]


I had a date night with T and we went to see a film. This and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story [2016] were on the table and we chose this based on it being a rare musical (musicals being the secret pleasure of T) that interested me too. I was interested for the noise it was generating in the press and also for having seen Whiplash [2014] by Chazelle earlier.

Whiplash was a problematic film. On the one hand it is an extremely good film with a tight beyond measure structure and intensity. On the other hand it tells us that it is completely okay and sometimes even necessary to be an absolute asshole, and in the highest levels of competition, if you fail by just a hair, you are nothing. Obviously this is true on those levels, but still not a message I like seeing repeated.

After that I’m sure I’m not the only one surprised that Chazelle has managed an absolutely human story of love, dreams and their conflict. Where to begin…

Pretty much everything in this film is loaned from somewhere else, but the loaned pieces are chosen with taste. Also, everything has been at least slightly tuned for the film and the changes are improvements in the context of the film. This stealing extends through everything. Shots, angles, scenes, dance pieces, songs, plot twists, dialogue, clothing, settings… All of it is composed into a seamless film that manages to be something original and most of the times, if you catch the reference, it adds to the depth of the scene. That is, stealing is okay, if you steal from the best and know what you are doing.

In addition to the stolen bits, the film has its share of name dropping for film (and jazz too, but I’m not too familiar with that scene) aficionados. The whole referential layer is big enough to be appreciated on its own.

Then you have the camera work. This is just the opening scene – it’s not the first time single shot techniques have been used to capture complex choreographed scenes, but this is the first time it’s been done like this. The camera moves effortlessly among the cars and dancers hugging them closely, it twists on a dime to frame the next dancer chosen to be in the spotlight, it takes you inside the dance and moves around with ease that was surprising and effective.

That was just one case of inspired use of the camera in the film. Throughout the film, everything done with the camera supports the story. Sometimes it picks a framing to refer a similar framing in another film to add depth to this one. At other times the camera picks angles or uses frames within the frame to enhance emotions. Mostly this is basic stuff, but it is done very well and consistently here.

Although the script is nothing special, it is still very solid. Characters have motivations and the story has a flow and a rhythm. The camerawork, the references, all of that add depth to what is in the script. This is in essence yet another love story. Those tend to rise or fall based on the charisma of and chemistry between the leads. Here I bought into everything that Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling) and Mia (played by Emma Stone) went through together.

The story is about two aspiring artists. Mia works in a studio back lot cafe and dreams of acting herself, while Sebastian hopes to buy a piece of real estate that used to hold the most legendary jazz club in LA to revive the jazz club. They have a few chance meetings and end up being together, while chasing their dreams. One of them sells out to be successful, while the other keeps struggling. There’s bitterness over selling out and some misunderstandings and all the usual things. Then there’s an opportunity for the other that will separate them for a long time. Obviously the opportunity is taken and the parting is bittersweet, but that is just warming up for the finale. The final act is stolen straight out of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [1964] – it is one of the most devastating film endings I’ve seen and I haven’t seen it copied elsewhere, so this is yet another stolen scene picked with taste and used to great effect in this context.

Besides being structurally and technically very very sound and interesting, the script gives the love story the framing it needs and Gosling and Stone take it the rest of the way. I was just blown away on so many levels. This is one of the rare cases, when a film is worthy of the Oscars it will be receiving in just a few weeks.

The grade is intentionally above the supposed maximum. It is reserved for films that have no flaws and are more than the sum of their parts. That is, for masterpieces, where everything adds up to more than it should. This is one of those.

  • Director: Damien Chazelle
  • Watched on: 21st Jan 2017
  • Watched at: Kinopalatsi
  • 6/5