La La Land

Directed By: Damien Chazelle

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, and J. K. Simmons

If there is such a thing as a liberal bubble, Hollywood is the absolute epitome of it.  There have been plenty of years where the film crowned best picture does not speak to the times in any way, shape, or form.  Just look to winners like No Country for Old Men, Birdman, and especially The Artist.  In two of these examples, it's clear that Hollywood has an affinity for movies about the arts.  The ultimate success of these films has been met with criticism from more mainstream moviegoers.  At the dawn of the Trump era, the utterly blissful La La Land would most definitely be the latest film to make that list should it win big at this year's Academy Awards.  With it shaping up to be a three-way race between La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight, Damien Chazelle's second feature film stands a pretty good chance of doing just that.  Given how great La La Land is, I'm happy to jump right into Hollywood's liberal bubble.

Aspiring actress Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) — two people who do not have their lives together at all — are making a habit of running into one another all over Los Angeles.  With Mia serving as a barista at a coffee shop on-studio and Sebastian playing as a pianist at a local restaurant, neither of them is exactly living the dream.  They run into one another while Sebastian is having a bit of road rage on the freeway.  They have another brusque encounter at a local restaurant after Mia's had a failed coffee-stained audition and Sebastian has just been fired by his boss Bill (J.K. Simmons).  Some months later, they run into one another again at a party where Sebastian is performing as a keyboardist in an 80s cover band.  Mia makes the first move on Sebastian.  Sparks fly, and neither of them is just someone in the crowd to one another any longer.

It's been two years since Damien Chazelle's breakout success Whiplash, a film I think will stand the test of time and be remembered decades later as an iconic piece of cinema.   While Chazelle makes a complete 180-degree turn with his third feature, romance and nostalgia define the sensational La La Land in the same way that vitriol and intensity characterized Whiplash.  Passing through the seasons with a carefree pep in his step, Chazelle serves up an upbeat, dazzling piece of cinema that defiantly runs counter to the mood of the country these days in all its Technicolor glory.  Despite this significant change in course from Whiplash that demonstrates Chazelle's versatility, there is one major commonality between his last two films — jazz.  Pulsating with a strong melody and exploring the history of swing (notably focusing on Charlie Parker once again), Chazelle continues to revive an ailing genre of yesteryear on the big screen.  With the magical tunes brought to life in this musical, I'd say his efforts are more than just laudable.  They're award-worthy.

As much as it delves into the history of jazz, Chazelle's La La Land explores the luster of the golden age of Hollywood.  The filmmaking here is absolutely delightful in how nostalgic and throwback it is.  You can see it in the flashy, gooey Technicolor visuals and set design that harken back to this iconic era.  You can hear it in the jazzy musical numbers that pop up in the middle of a scene and feel as spontaneous as those in the musicals of the 50s and 60s.  You can feel it in the lighting that focuses moviegoers on one character in those magical moments in this musical that make you totally forget about the world around you.  Yes, it's crystal clear that La La Land takes us back to old Hollywood, and it's even symbolically emphasized in how the title and credits bookend the film in the classic Hollywood style.  Chazelle ultimately creates his own anachronistic world that will suck in just about any moviegoer with its unrelenting charm — his own "la la land" of sorts that showcases several seasons of life.

Back in 2011, we saw them recreate the magic of Dirty Dancing in Crazy, Stupid, Love.  In 2013, we watched them play star-crossed lovers on opposite sides of the law in Gangster Squad.  Now, we have the distinct pleasure of watching Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling share the screen once again, and their on-screen romantic chemistry is as potent as ever.  This time around, it's on display in a truly great piece of cinema.  I know that Miles Teller and Emma Watson were originally slated for the lead roles in La La Land, but the ultimate casting of this pair couldn't have been more perfect.  Playful and endearing, Stone and Gosling make for one unforgettable couple.  Both dealing with the daunting challenge to make the dreams of their artistry a reality, they clearly get one another and push each other to greatness.  It's one heartwarming on-screen romance that reunites what may just be the great on-screen couple of our generation.

I've clearly been sucked into the jazzy bubble of La La Land.  Beautifully crafted, warmly acted, and inspired by those who dare to dream, it's the magical movie of the Christmas season.  This one is swinging for the fences.  La La Land gets a sober rating.  Don't miss this musical!