AFI Fest Review: La La Land – Damien Chaz-Hell Yeah!

The buzz La La Land has enjoyed may be overwhelming, so let me put it into a bit of context. The opening and closing dance numbers are so brilliant and uplifting that they are probably the best sequences in cinema all year. There are a few other stellar dance routines early in the film too, and when La La Land gets melancholy it’s for good reason.

The opening song “Another Day Of Sun” is the traffic jam dance number you’ve seen online. There’s another dance scene at a pool party, and both scenes have such inventive choreography among background dancers, it’s like the next level of Step Up. These aren’t the same old pop and lock moves. There’s what I would call Car-kour and moves that give each individual background dancer a personality.

La La Land

Emma Stone stars as ‘Mia’ in La La Land. Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

Emma Stone and her friends have a great musical number too. Stone has such a spunky attitude, twirling her dress and stepping to the music that when her character loses her glow during hard times, it feels crushing.

In a post-Entourage age where everyone has an ironic commentary on the industry, it’s so lovely to see little whimsical digs at Hollywood in the background. A screenwriter character drops all the buzzwords of world building and franchises. Stone and Gosling walk by a film shoot where a little scene between the performers and crew happens in silence.

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Ryan Gosling stars as ‘Sebastian’ in LA LA LAND. Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

Writer/director Damien Chazelle continues to champion jazz by having Ryan Gosling’s character speak passionately about jazz. Gosling brings his intensity to his character, Seb’s passion for art, just as Stone brings vivaciousness to her character, Mia. When Seb and Mia argue it is a valid discussion about steady work vs. passion projects. Both are a strain on relationships, there’s no avoiding that, but when you make it about a power position, you lose.

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Keith (John Legend, left) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, right) in LA LA LAND. Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

Towards the middle, I missed the sort of flash mob choreography of those opening numbers. Chazelle pays homage to other styles of Hollywood musical, particularly when Gosling and Stone dance through a museum. He must have timed their “Waste of a Lovely Night” number to an actual sunrise. Either that, or that is some incredible CGI sunrise work. The Messengers, a fictional band fronted by John Legend as Keith, performs a rock concert which also lets Gosling show off amazing piano skills.

Plus, the finale, which I won’t spoil but I count as one of the two most brilliant scenes of the year, only works because of all the different tones La La Land explores throughout its runtime. If this were just the flash mob movie, we’d lose those layers.

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Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in LA LA LAND. Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

Chazelle makes Los Angeles look like Paris as Stone and Gosling dance by lights and the seaside. The color palette features solid colors, with both main and background characters dancing in monochromatic dresses in primary colors of yellow, red and blue. The colors get messier and more complicated as the story does, which effectively altered my tone as intended.

Had La La Land stuck with uplifting celebratory music, it would have been the happiest movie ever made. However, it has more on its mind than superficial happiness, and while it put me through the ringer to do it, I respect it using the medium to explore the difficulties and pressures of having a passion for the arts. I still want the soundtrack.