Wednesday, December 28, 2016

La La Land Review

La La Land is a movie that I had the great fortune of seeing in early November, almost two months ago. I was shown an advanced screening so I could write an article about it after interviewing director Damien Chazelle for my journalism internship. While I could've written my review back then, technically the people who showed me the early screening asked me to wait until December 16 to write my review. I think I could've rebelled and written my review anyways and no one would've cared because this hit the festival run back in September and had all kinds of advanced screenings and early reviews. But I decided I might as well wait until it hits theaters nationwide so that more average movie goers have seen the movie when my review comes out. I'm also glad I waited because it's hard to label a movie as one of the best movies of this decade the second you step out of the theater. It's best to give it some time to sink in. But yes, I think this movie is that good. I haven't seen every movie this decade, so it's hard to make definite statements like that, but out of the movies I have seen, I do think it would at least challenge Inception and Boyhood for the best movie I've seen this decade. So of course that means it's the best movie of 2016. Nothing even comes close in that category.

Damien Chazelle broke onto the scene in a huge way with Whiplash in 2014. It blew people away in Sundance that year and went onto be nominated for several Oscars a year later, one for best picture and a best supporting actor win for J.K. Simmons. It was one of my favorite movies that year as it made my top 10 list for 2014. Great movie! All you had to do was say "Damien Chazelle's next film" and I would be excited. Now you definitely don't need to personally talk with Damien Chazelle in order to enjoy this movie. But since I did, allow me to share a bit of insight that I learned about this film our conversation. La La Land is a movie that Damien Chazelle wrote first. After graduating Harvard, he moved to Los Angeles to live his dream as a filmmaker and he had a rough go at it at first. Music is a big influence for him as he grew up watching the Golden Age musicals from back in the 40's, 50's and 60's and he wanted to make a movie that brought back that magic. But La La Land was such an ambitious project that he couldn't get funding for it or get a studio to back him. So he had to put in on the shelf and do something else. When Whiplash happened, it gave him the spotlight he needed to pick La La Land back up off the shelf and give it a go. It was time to make his dream project.

Yes, this was a very personal project for Damien Chazelle. Not only was this a movie that he had wanted to make, but it was also reflective of his own personally journey. The movie stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling who move to Los Angeles to live their dreams. Emma Stone is an aspiring actress trying to get into the movie business and Ryan Gosling is an aspiring jazz musician who's trying his best to make sure that jazz music doesn't die. Both of these characters have a rough go at things at first. Just like Damien Chazelle had a rough go at things when he first moved to Los Angeles to try to make it in the film industry. Jazz music is also something that Damien Chazelle is also passionate about. I didn't even need to talk to him to figure that out. Both Whiplash and La La Land had complete jazz scores. Usually the movies that are very personal for the people making it are the best movies because of all the passion and emotion that those people put into it. You can definitely tell that Damien Chazelle put all of his heart and soul into this project because every scene of this movie is complete perfection. My mind was totally blown while I was watching this as I was sitting there in complete awe watching this film. As I've thought about it over these last couple months, it has only gotten better. Like a good bottle of wine that increases in quality over time.

Not that I drink wine, but it's a good comparison. The other thing that makes a project like this great are two lead stars who put their whole soul into bringing these characters to life. In regards to Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, this wasn't just a paycheck for them. Ryan Gosling plays a jazz pianist. Some of the pieces he plays are really advanced pieces and I came out wondering if it was actually him or a piano double. Having a professional piano double is not a shameful thing, so if that was the case that wouldn't have downgraded his performance at all. But no. There is zero piano double. In fact, Ryan Gosling trained for several months in order to play all the piano pieces. John Legend, a musical superstar who co-stars in this movie with Gosling and probably spent his whole life learning the piano, was jealous at how fast Gosling picked things up. In addition to the piano playing, Gosling and Stone also did all of their own singing and dancing. No autotune. No voice doubles. No professional dancing stand-ins. They trained for three or four months to get all the music and dancing down. I can definitely appreciate it when that much time and effort is put into a movie role. Even in bad movies, if an actor spends that much time preparing, I will be impressed.

While I haven't ever worked in the film industry, I would wager a bet that most movies, if not all, have a lot of heart and soul poured into them. At least by a portion of the cast and crew. Sadly that doesn't always equate to a great movie. There's also plenty of movies that have gone through a whole host of production issues and conflicts with cast and crew during various stages of filmmaking that have turned out to be masterpieces. So the fact that Chazelle, Gosling and Stone all poured their heart and soul into this project doesn't necessarily mean that this movie was guaranteed to succeed and it doesn't mean that you are all guaranteed to love it. But in my opinion this is a scenario where all the stars did align to make a nearly perfect movie. Chazelle had a brilliantly perfect idea. Perhaps an idea that only comes around once in a generation. Not only did he have such a good idea, but his execution as a director was phenomenal. He was also fortunate to have a cast and a crew who shared his enthusiasm for this project and delivered equally impressive results. Time and effort added to phenomenal results is what I hope turns into a lot of gold trophies come Oscar season. At the very least, though, I hope it translates into tickets purchased by general audiences.

Now that I've buttered up the movie thus far, how about some specific details as to what it was that I loved about this. To start off with, this is a musical. And I enjoy musicals. But as I mentioned earlier, this is a musical that tried to capture the magic of the Golden Age musicals and it totally succeeds in that. The very opening scene sees a bunch of people stuck in frustrating Los Angeles traffic. One person gets out and starts singing. Then a whole bunch of other people join in and suddenly we are treated to an absolutely delightful musical number. While watching that I had a giant smile on my face. I leaned back in my seat and prepared myself for a fantastic ride. And a fantastic ride is exactly what I got. If you're a fan of older musicals, this movie is going to be a nostalgic treat that you probably never thought you were going to ever get again. The music is great. The choreographed dancing was perfect. The set pieces were fantastic. The color schemes were beautiful. The movie is an amazing love letter to old Hollywood and is magical in every way. Thus it becomes a huge breath of fresh air in a day that sometimes seems that mainstream Hollywood has lost its touch.

Despite how magical this movie in terms of recapturing the magic of old Hollywood, that's not the only thing that makes this movie so great. After a grand and glorious opening scene that had me prepared for a delightful adventure, the movie actually took a turn I wasn't expecting. While managing to still be delightfully awesome, suddenly I found myself immersed into this incredible journey of our two main characters. What surprised me about this is I felt that I was vicariously watching the story of my life through these two characters. Metaphorically, of course. I'm not an actor or a singer. But the parallels were incredible. And it cut deep to the very soul. I don't think I'm alone in this, either, because this is a realistic movie about what it's like to be a dreamer. A human being living life. And it's a movie that gets it. I feel like everyone can put themselves into the shoes of Emma Stone or Ryan Gosling and be touched by their journey. I don't want to dive into their journey because I want that to be a surprise for you, but it's not some Hollywood fairytale. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, despite being two of the most perfect human beings to grace this earth, manage to become everyday people who are living everyday lives and the things they go through are realistic, everyday events that me and you go through. Life is not a fairy tale and neither is this movie.

I will admit that there was a moment or two where I didn't know where this movie was going or it felt a bit long. But when we got to the final act, everything makes perfect sense and I thought back to those initial moments and realized they were absolutely perfect and exactly what the movie needed to be. That's one of the reasons why this movie got better the more I thought about it. Every movie that's considered one of the best movies of all time has that moment that defines the movie. That scene that everyone remembers and refers to. This movie has three of those that I can think off from the top of my head. Three moments in the movie where I was left stunned and speechless. Without spoiling anything, one of these moments is the final scene. When we hit the credits, I was almost in tears. For multiple reasons. A mixture of emotions that hits on every level regardless of what you are going through. And it does something that I think was extremely bold, but works perfectly. It's one of those movies where you are having such a good time for so many reasons that you start to wonder how it's going to wrap things up. Sometimes it's hard for movies to have a perfect ending. But La La Land hits a grand slam with its ending. I left the theater in awe.

I hope by reading this you have been able to get a feel of how great this movie was. I've done my best to explain why it is that I think this movie is so great, but I don't think I have really been able to do this movie justice in this review. Perhaps it's something that you have to experience for yourself. But please, don't let this movie slip away without you giving it a chance. If I had to describe this movie using one word, that word would be "magical." Put that in quotations and place it on the cover of the DVD. This is a movie that manages to recapture the magic of the Golden Age musical, allowing you to bask in the the glorious nostalgia by giving us a movie that we never thought we'd ever get again while at the same time being one of the most relevant films to our day and specifically everyone's personal journey. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling encapsulate what it means to be a human being with goals and aspirations and the realistic positive and negative consequences that come with that and the musical numbers, thematically speaking, manage to wrap a big, giant beautiful bow on this perfect movie. As the best movie of the year and one of the best movies I have seen in a very long time, of course I am going to give La La Land a 10/10.

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