Damien Chazelle's modern classic musical pays tribute to its heroes with a story about Hollywood romance in the age of the blockbuster.
La La Land is looking at a lot of awards, potentially more than any movie, ever. That's a lot. Of course, the big one is the Best Picture trophy, and for that it will have to beat Golden Globe winner Moonlight and other favorites, Manchester by the Sea and Lion. La La Land is a beautiful and tragic love story, a wildly fun musical and a beautiful spectacle. But a huge part of its beauty and charm is its tributes to classic Hollywood. Does what might be considered a tribute film deserve the award for Best Picture?
So this is where we stand. The year after Mad Max: Fury Road threatened the Academy into ten nominations and six wins, we have La La Land, a classic Hollywood musical love story from Damien Chazelle, Whiplash director. The most shocking part of experiencing this musical is that it's not ironic. The characters' lives are modern and the jazz soundtrack is full of pop. Yet shot after shot recreates famous scenes from the classics—Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, Shall We Dance. The movie is built on other musicals.
A tribute film? No, the story won't be dominated by the references. Chazelle has written a story about Hollywood romance in the age of blockbusters, jazz in the age of hip hop, love in the cutthroat movie biz and dreams at a time where there's just no time for 'em.
Ryan Gosling's character is full of the same nostalgia that from which the movie draws in its tribute scenes. And while Gosling takes the long road to achieving his dream, touring with John Legend's neo-jazz-pop band until he finally settles down to open his jazz club, the movie sticks to its guts. It throws it all on red, leaping into a grand-opening musical number on a jammed L.A. highway before the title card even appears, and keeps dancing until the very end.
Gosling learned piano for the movie and Legend learned guitar. Emma Stone's endlessly fascinating acting is the film's best. The soundtrack is stellar, Stone's singing beautiful and the sets and cinematography, gorgeous.
The story comes down to love or dreams. Going in, you think that the line, "Here's to the fools that dream," is just a playful catchphrase. But the end credits, though, that line is real and tragic. I'm not from Hollywood and I don't know the lifestyle, but walking out of the theater, I believe it.
The question remains: is La La Land the best film of the year? There's no doubt that it wants to win—it's a movie about movies and its star is an actress playing an actress. Look at 2011's Hugo, Scorsese's ode to the movies. Hugo received five nominations but lost the Best Picture award to… The Artist. The Artist, a tribute not merely to the silent film era, but to making silent films, is the best example of a homage film winning the big one. Its black and white musical numbers and adorable dog pushed it to the top, over The Tree of Life and The Descendants.
Chazelle's amazingly fun, modern classic musical is excellent, total indulgence in nostalgia. It honors the classics well. I'm not going to call La La Land the best film of the year. But I won't complain if it wins.
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