Gosling and Stone dance through film history in ‘La La Land’

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With 14 Oscar nominations, “La La Land” both respects its movie history and joins its ranks, tying the record with “All About Eve” and “Titanic” for the most nods.

In the film, Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz pianist whose love of the traditional is stifled by the world’s disinterest in the music and his need to make the rent. Emma Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actress whose closest brushes with stardom come from her job as a coffee shop barista on the Warner Brothers lot.

Both characters do what they can to stay involved: Gosling’s character plays Christmas songs for a bar filled with distracted patrons, and Mia participates in the grueling audition process. The characters have a couple of chance encounters and are soon wrapped in each other’s lives. A love story blossoms, and with the help of one another, the couple is thrust into a song-and-dance-filled journey of self-discovery.

There are two readily apparent love stories going on at the heart of “La La Land,” Sebastian and Mia’s Hollywood romance and writer/director Damien Chazelle’s love affair with the long-gone golden age of movies. Chazelle (“Whiplash”) does his absolute best to resurrect the musicals of yesterday with every detail of the film.

First, he uses the lavish color palette of vibrant primary and secondary shades to the surreal purple-blue twilight of the dance number used as the film’s poster. Beyond that, the music itself, written for the film by Justin Hurwitz, is as infused into the film’s DNA as the story, characters, or themes. The songs help tell and move the story, reveal characters, and sculpt the tone and mood of the film. Lastly, the final ingredient is film itself. From Chazelle’s decision to make what the camera is doing as kinetic as the dance choreography, to the story being set in the heart of the film industry, to the cinematic history which is worn on its sleeve in great flashing lights.

Aside from a number of sequences being shot in LA’s Griffith Park (featured in cinema’s classic, “Rebel Without a Cause”), the film echoes the styles and soul of Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” and Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Chazelle’s cinema-literacy is what elevates the film to its very charismatic and likable heights. Even if the audience isn’t aware of the celebration of those films, it is difficult to ignore the energy and passion behind what is driving the story.

Despite its Oscar nominations and critical praise, “La La Land” is not quite a masterpiece of a film so much as it is a masterpiece of a love-letter to film. Most of the film’s components are firing on all cylinders, but its frustration about its subject-matter weighs down its ambition.

It dances—cheek-to-cheek and in great, sweeping, multi-person dance-numbers—with magic and whimsy, but falls victim (in a minor but noticeable way) to that reach. During a key sequence in the film, Gosling’s character laments about the dying interest in jazz. The scene is crucial to defining their relationship and who his character aspires to be. The comparisons to society’s disinterest in film history are uncomfortably apparent. And it is that frustration that the film blends well, but also is something with which it doesn’t quite make amends.

Setting aside any minor setbacks, Chazelle and the film succeeds. It succeeds most in communicating one very important notion: sure, America has great TV and the digi-fights of comic book franchises are serviceable spectacles, but if we truly cared about film as an art form, this is the type of film we could be making.

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