By Jason Abdow
I feel like I do not stand alone when I say that musicals can be incredibly hit or miss. Outside of animation, musicals come around rarely and are usually divisive amongst critics and audience members alike. That is why I was so surprised when the reviews seemed to be universally positive for “La La Land.“ Now that it seems to be the movie to beat for Best Picture, and recently broke the record for most Golden Globes won by a film, the question has become whether or not it deserves the acclaim.
It is a tough question for me to answer, while I do not think it is the best movie to come out in 2016, it is certainly one of the best made films from that year. First off, as much as I adore “Whiplash,” as Damien Chazelle has definitely improved as a director. Right from the opening musical number, taking place in Los Angeles morning traffic and is edited immaculately to appear as one shot, you feel Chazelle’s presence behind the camera as he shows masterful control over every visual element on screen. I do not see any way that he loses the Oscar for Best Director. He really is that amazing.
I do wish I could say the same for Chazelle’s script. While its far from being bad, it did have some major flaws that cannot really be dug into without spoiling the film. I would say where the script succeeds the most is elevating a seemingly simple plot into something more dynamic. The plot follows a jazz musician and an aspiring actress falling in love while trying to make it in Hollywood, a pretty straightforward story on paper. But when the execution is this interesting, it is hard not to give him some credit.
Where I feel Chazelle makes his biggest mistakes would be at the ending where I feel the tone of the film begins to get confused. Again, without spoiling anything, I will say my problem was not with the ending itself, just with the drastic shift in tone. The first two hours of this movie have a magical feeling of wonder and the movie pulls it off completely. The end seemed to try and counter this with some realism, but it just was not able to totally gel for me. In the end that flaw is just a large nitpick and will likely not bother as many people as it bothered me, it is just one of the only things that kept this from being a perfect movie.
Despite the issues with the story, the two leads of the film, played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, did a phenomenal job. Stone, especially, gives the best performance of her career as someone who so desperately wants to make it as a movie star. It is more grounded than I think an inferior actress would have made it. Considering that Stone, herself, is the kind of A-list celebrity that her character wants to be, I was amazed by how easy it was for me to look past that and see her as a relatively normal girl. One musical number she has at an audition towards the end was particularly powerful and solidified her as a frontrunner for Best Actress. Any issues I had with Stone are in the script and not with her actual performance.
Gosling is equally great, as a jazz pianist who is stubbornly trying to bring classic jazz back, even if everyone else has left it behind. He is definitely showing a more comedic side to himself, while also accomplishing what Stone is able to do by coming across as a normal guy. While he does not have a big scene to put his performance over the edge, he is consistently entertaining and charming, making him the perfect match for Stone. The two of them do have wonderful chemistry, which makes sense considering this is their third time acting together, making their love story all the more compelling.
And of course, there is no way to talk about this movie without mentioning the music. Major credit must be given to Justin Hurwitz, who wrote the songs and score for this film. The score and soundtrack complement each other excellently, creating some of the best musical moments to be put on screen this decade. Besides for the first couple songs, the musical numbers rarely feel loud and over-the-top like they would on Broadway, not to say Broadway musicals are bad. Instead, many of the stronger musical numbers are quieter and more intimate, expanding the story and characters rather than just being thrown in.
All the other technical aspects of this film are executed strongly as well. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is worthy of praise, especially during the first few musical numbers and the final musical sequence. While used sparingly all the sets and costumes that show up are unique and add extra charm. There is a little visual joke where Stone and her three roommates all have different color-coordinated outfits and rooms that is subtle and easy to miss but stood out to me as a fun little addition to everything.
With all this being said, the flaws of the film are enough for me to say I do not love this film, but I would not be upset to see this movie come out as the big winner on Oscar night. Damien Chazelle has made an incredibly ambitious film here and unlike many Oscar contenders, I would recommend everyone check this one out. There is so much to enjoy and while the ending might be polarizing to some, the rest of the film is nearly perfect and deserves all the praise it has received. “La La Land” is the best made film I have seen from 2016, and I will likely not be alone in giving it that compliment.