“La La Land” dazzles audience

Andrew White Cleary, Copy Editor

“La La Land” is a film which takes place in the “city of dreams” – and it indeed evokes this fact from the very beginning. An opening credit, informing us that the film is shot in CinemaScope, is distinctive in its vibrancy of color – but we then see cars waiting motionless on a bridge during an afternoon traffic jam. Here, writer and director Damien Chazelle is daring in his use of such tonal shifts, but his intelligent direction holds it all together. When the camera trucks across the cars of frustrated drivers, for example, it impresses upon us the severity of the traffic, but at the same time draws us into the film’s events to an extent that few conventional shots could have equaled. It therefore succeeds in setting the stage for a zestful opening number. Singers exit their cars breaking out into song; they merrily dance and afterward assimilate back into the traffic. Chazelle’s third work begins in whimsicality – but in skillful and quite assured whimsicality.

And the gaiety of this sequence serves a purpose: The nature of Los Angeles as a city of dreams is established by it. The scenery for this play is set at once. Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling, is an aficionado of jazz music aiming to begin a jazz club and give the genre a resurgence in popularity. He is the love interest of aspiring actress Mia, played by Emma Stone. They form a relationship amid their efforts to achieve success. Among Chazelle’s gifts is moderation. He retains throughout “La La Land” the sense of fantasy that made the opening distinctive, but does not overdo it, choosing to place small touches in several other scenes. During a joyful musical number in a planetarium, Sebastian and Mia begin to hover in the air. What in many musicals could have been overly sentimental is here reasonably controlled in its music and choreography, expressing the city’s magical quality without falling into camp.

The use of two protagonists is successful partly because of the differences between them, though largely from character development and strong acting. In the film’s first third, Sebastian can be an enigma. At first appearing somewhat plain, he develops a charm and by the ending has revealed himself as sensitive. Mia is the more bright-eyed and extroverted of the two and, like Sebastian, not without depth. Gosling gives Sebastian an amiability, while still showing the character’s commitment. He convincingly portrays Sebastian’s initial coldness to Mia, then gives the character a stoicism all his own. Stone’s role runs the gamut, and she plays it with much skill. At once she conveys the elations of a love affair and the major disappointment of rejection for roles; many of the work’s most memorable scenes are carried by her. In the most important audition of the film, Chazelle casts Stone in the middle of a solely black background, an excellent evocation of her performance’s significance, and of the judges’ focus on her.

The film peaks in its closing 10 minutes, ending an engrossing love story with poignance and visual splendor. Sebastian and Mia first met unpleasantly, annoyed with one another, in the middle of a monotonous event; now, in an extended sequence two hours later, they are surrounded by visually beautiful backgrounds of rich colors and scenic settings. But it is not everlasting. What can be said of the ending of “La La Land,” without giving away too much, is that it is bittersweet. Our characters leave one door formally closed, content with the opening of another. Because of its exceptional acting and intelligent direction, “La La Land” is among the past year’s finest films.