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There's Brilliance Behind All That Jazz

          Damian Chazelle’s Whiplash was a surprisingly tense film about a student being pushed to breaking point by a tough and abusive teacher. The film garnered lots of critical praise and earned J.K. Simmons an Oscar. It also showed very clearly that Chazelle has a passion for jazz music, a passion which drives his next film La La Land. And that passion permeates every frame of this film.
          The musical follows a pair of aspiring artists in Hollywood: struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who in between auditions, try-outs, and attempts to survive in competitive industries, repeatedly run into each other and fall in love. But it doesn’t end there. What follows is a dramatic exploration of the highs and lows of artists following their dreams.
          This is a movie that loves Hollywood. The classic figures, movies, and aura of golden age Hollywood is romanticized throughout this film, from Mia’s Ingrid Bergman wallpaper to a dance sequence at the Griffith Observatory spurned on by Rebel Without a Cause. There’s also a deep love of jazz history with Sebastian being a purist in the mould of Count Basie and Louis Armstrong. Both Mia and Sebastian want to be performers of a particular calibre, but one of the most interesting things this movie does is it shows the compromises that need to be made. Often, artists are faced with the reality their dreams may not be possible and they’ll have to settle for something less glamorous. This movie explores that without being completely pessimistic about it. It captures the struggle, constant rejection, the stifling of creativity, and does so in a way that’s immediately identifiable even if you aren’t artistically inclined yourself.
          The love story is really engaging too. In some ways it’s clichéd, again in a charming way that takes you back to romantic comedies of the '40s and '50s, but with an updated take on their behaviours and personalities. The result is a terrific portrayal of a relationship, and how success or lack thereof affects it, especially in such a difficult industry. For as much as this movie may love classic Hollywood it doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities, and how difficult it is to make a name there. Both Stone and Gosling are excellent in this, each delivering one of the best performances of their career, and their chemistry is flawless. The small supporting cast consists of singer John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, and a great cameo by J.K. Simmons.
          La La Land is incredibly stylish and is intentionally paying tribute to the glamour of the great Hollywood musicals, with perhaps a spot of Broadway in there. There are long shots, a particular focus on lighting and shadows, and often-times stunning production design. The pacing soothes you into a moment, and the surreal choices designed to heighten a mood or illustrate a feeling of excitement, happiness, even regret are absolutely beautiful. And by proxy of that, the quick editing is superb! The choreography is very vibrant and energized, hearkening back to West Side Story, Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, etc. Gosling more than once is channelling Gene Kelly while Stone may be influenced by Judy Garland. But what makes it feel new is the modernization of the setting and characters, as well as the songs themselves. The attention to detail is really engrossing as well. I love the vibrant colours of the upbeat musical sequences but also the careful shadowing of the slower pieces, obviously there to let the music carry the scene.
          In my review of Moana I proclaimed “How Far I’ll Go” as the Best Original Song winner this year. I’d like to rescind that statement in light of the bevy of great songs in La La Land. These songs are smooth, well-written, catchy, and more than that, really embody the mood of the characters. They’re really integrated smoothly, and enhance the story and tone. The piano theme of the couple is a really sweet little tune that forms an emotional weight the whole film through. The opening number “Another Day of Sun” wherein people dance on a crowded L.A. overpass, and “A Lovely Night” which particularly feels like something out of a Gene Kelly movie are really good; but “The Fools Who Dream” may be the new Best Song frontrunner for just how much passion Stone puts into it and the touching meaning it has for artists everywhere. However the fun and boisterous “Someone in the Crowd” or the soulful ballad “City of Stars” could score nominations themselves -they’re all pretty fantastic! And again, these songs are executed wonderfully, Stone and Gosling are capable singers throwing themselves into these performances, and they’re shot without cuts in a lovely fashion.
          If Whiplash was a sign young Damian Chazelle was a great talent, La La Land confirms it. This movie is a celebration of jazz music and cinema, but it’s also a down-to-earth drama about following your dreams and the highs and lows that come with that -and somehow while still being a grand musical. Really, La La Land is a celebration of artistry, and a tribute to all those who’ve both succeeded and failed along the road to achieve their creative ambitions; in short, it’s a film for all the foolish dreamers out there.

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