La La Land – 30 Seconds from Perfection

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Award Season is here! The Golden Globes are behind us and the 89th Academy Awards loom ever closer. With the winter blockbusters out of the way and January playing host to the usual slew of trash that nobody watches anyway, we are finally free to catch up on all those great December releases that we missed because of Rogue OneLa La Land, which has already earned itself seven Globes, is sure to be a top contender at this year’s Oscars.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star as Mia and Sebastian, an actress and jazz pianist both toiling in obscurity. Fate conspires to arrange their meeting and their ensuing love affair stokes their passions for their respective crafts, driving them to pursue their dreams like never before. But as success draws ever closer, the two lovers are driven further apart. Set against the backdrop of Los Angeles, and sporting a nostalgic reverence for all things Classic Hollywood, La La Land transports the audience to a world of stylized unreality,  where everyday environments from our banal lives are transformed into a canvas onto which is painted the beauty of romance. With top notch performances from its stars, sublime visuals, and a musical score that will have you humming as you  leave the theater, La La Land is a treat for any lover of cinema.

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Emma Stone shines as the lead of this film in a performance that may be a career best. Vulnerable and authentic, she pours her heart into her character and provides the emotional pivot point around which the rest of the film turns. Whether she’s being silly and flirtatious or driven and inspiring, Stone is simply delightful. Her acting alone makes her a front runner for Best Actress, and that’s without considering her musical performances.

The musical numbers reveal that Stone is now a Hollywood triple threat: actress, dancer, and singer. Her voice, which is on the lower end of the register for a woman, is surprisingly high and breathy when she sings. It is soft, whispery, and oddly endearing. She never hits any glass shattering high notes, but she doesn’t need to. Her more subdued songs make Mia feel like a real person rather than a professional belting it out from center stage. Besides, unlike most musicals, in La La Land the singing is not the central focus, but is instead part of a larger musical whole composed of lengthy instrumental sequences and dance numbers. Here too, both stars deserve recognition for performing the film’s long dance routines, most of which are filmed in one take. For co-star Ryan Gosling however, there was more to learn than song and dance.

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Gosling delivers a solid performance when it comes to his character and his singing, but what people will most remember about him is his time at the piano. His character, Sebastian is a jazz pianist, and when it comes time for Gosling to play the piano he quite literally steals the spotlight, hammering out melodies and apparent improvisation of dazzling complexity with ease. Astonishingly, he cultivated this newfound talent in just three months of intensive training. Every scene in which Sebastian plays the piano really is Ryan Gosling. The use of body doubles or any other form of cinematic skulduggery is rendered impossible by the film’s cinematography.

La La Land has a fondness for long takes. The opening shot of the film carries us through an entire song and dance routine, establishing a precedent that will be maintained throughout. Most of the musical numbers are filmed in a single take, an approach which showcases a truly impressive display of set design, choreography, and cinematography. The choice to pan and zoom rather than cut creates a great sense of flow (and necessitates that the actors do everything themselves), and the subtle shifts in angle, lighting, and visual effects create an almost magical effect. Sets seem to shift and transform before our eyes as our characters dance through surrealist space, songs are preempted by a drop in lighting that obscures all but the singer; and fast pans disguise cuts in whirls of color. Together, these elements paint the feel of romance onto the screen. It is a lovely and impressive way to augment the music.

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The approach to music in La La Land is more holistic than in most musicals. Songs do not dominate the musical sequences, but instead share the spotlight with lengthy instrumental pieces and dance routines. This is perhaps a symptom of having a pianist for a lead character, but it is nonetheless refreshing. I have always found characters spontaneously breaking into song to be one of the more abrasive elements of this genre, so having to endure relatively little of that caters to my sensibilities. Indeed, some of the music is actually part of the plot, with characters either performing on stage or rehearsing together. That is to say, there are musical numbers where the characters are aware that they are singing rather than the standard convention of having the characters convey the story through song. Both approaches are employed, and this, coupled with the film’s occasional forays into surrealism, keeps each number fresh and exciting. The music itself is catchy, with certain pieces developing or being reprised as the plot progresses. Expect to leave with a tune stuck in your head.

La La Land is a magical and emotional ride from start to finish. Top notch music and choreography coupled with intelligent camera work and set design conspire to create a uniquely cinematic atmosphere. This is a swansong to classic movie making with nods and visual references galore for aficionados to spot. Sublime in nearly every way, La La Land will please all but the most romantic at heart, who may find themselves wishing that the film could have ended just a moment sooner than it does. Tastes will differ, but for me at least, La La Land is a mere 30 seconds from perfection.

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