La La Land

Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Stars: Ryan Gosling (Sebastian), Emma Stone (Mia), John Legend (Keith), J.K. Simmons (Bill), Rosemarie DeWitt (Laura), Finn Wittrock (Greg), Callie Hernandez (Tracy), Sonoya Mizuno (Caitlin), Jessica Rothe (Alexis), Tom Everett Scott (David), Josh Pence (Josh), Terry Walters (Linda, Coffee Shop Manager)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2016
Country: U.S.
La La Land Blu-ray
La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land begins with exuberant, cathartic fantasy and ends on a beautifully modulated note of bittersweet romanticism, and in between those two scenes lies one of the best films of the year and one of the best movie musicals in decades. A love letter to the musical genre in all its many incarnations—brassy Broadway-style ensembles, lithe jazz sequences, cheek-to-cheek romance ala Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, colorful ebullience right out of Jacques Demy—La La Land revels in the exquisite simplicity of its boy-meets-girl narrative, using it as a hook for its memorable musical sequences, each of which is as different from the previous as it is essential to the film’s mounting emotional cadences. It’s a beautiful movie, really, one that reminds us of the joys and difficulties of life without feeling either too whimsical or too cynical. It hits a lovely sweet spot.

As the title suggests, the story takes place in Los Angeles in the heart of the entertainment industry, where we meet the struggling protagonists, Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who works at a coffee shop on one of the studio lots, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who wants to open his own club that stays true to jazz’s musical and cultural roots. Their first meeting, which neither one of them seems to remember, is one of outright hostility in a traffic jam on a Los Angeles overpass. Their second meeting is one of bad timing, as Sebastian has just been fired from his job as pianist at a restaurant and brushes past Mia as she attempts to compliment him on his playing. Their third meeting is at a lavish party in the Hollywood hills, where Sebastian has taken a job playing keyboard in a horrible ’80s tribute band and Mia, remembering his earlier ill treatment of her, rather gleefully pokes him by requesting that the band play A Flock of Seagull’s “I Ran,” surely the most painful bit of Reagan-era synth-pop for a serious jazz pianist to play.

That third meeting turns out to be the charmed one, as it initiates a romance that is fed by their mutual dedication to their respective arts, which ironically will be the very thing that causes them trouble later on when Sebastian takes a job playing in a popular neo-jazz band fronted by Keith (John Legend), who represents success at its most compromised. Both Sebastian and Mia want to be taken seriously, but find that a difficult prospect in Tinsel Town, with its shallow embrace of whatever works in the moment and fleeting attention span. Sebastian is derided for his dedication to the old masters, whose ways are being pushed out by various forms of jazz fusion that play better to the new generation. Mia, on the other hand, is a victim of Hollywood’s meat-grinder, going to audition after audition, only to be immediately dismissed or lured with the tantalizing callback that ends in another quick dismissal. She and Sebastian fall in love with each other and each other’s dreams, but the rub is that the two might not be able to truly coexist.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle made his mark two years ago with Whiplash (2014), which garnered strong critical notices and earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for J.K. Simmons, who has a small role here as the manager of the restaurant who fires Sebastian. Chazelle is clearly in love with the movie musical and the fundamental necessity of passion in art, which is why the story is as much about Sebastian and Mia’s love of music and performance as it is about their love for each other. Gosling and Stone are perfectly cast; they have consistently impressive on-screen chemistry, and they each have the shiny glow of an ingénue that slowly gets worn away by the realities of an industry that chews and spits their sort out by the dozens. Stone, with her big eyes and wide grin and Gosling with his Cary Grant-era looks and sly charm compliment each other visually and emotionally; it isn’t hard to imagine them falling in love, as they make us fall in love with them a little bit, too, if only for their impossible combination of silver-screen beauty and relatability. You want Mia and Sebastian to succeed, to defy the odds both professional and romantically, but Chazelle is not into easy answers and shallow reassurance.

Despite its fantastical surface, with musical numbers that break out of the reality of modern-day Los Angeles, reaching upward for the stars and inward for our feelings (the choreography is by Dancing With the Stars’s Mandy Moore), La La Land has its feet firmly planted in various hard realities. Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren (who shot David O. Russell’s last two films, American Hustle and Joy) emulate various visual tropes that will be familiar to long-time fans of the movie musical, and they turn much of the film into a primary-hued celebration of finding beauty in the mundane (the film actually begins with the old CinemaScope logo in black-and-white, cropped inside an Academy aspect ratio frame that slowly opens like a curtain while the image morphs into luscious Technicolor). The opening musical number, in which dozens of people get out of their gridlocked cars on an L.A. overpass to sing about their dreams of stardom under the sun, is a sublime and rousing ode to breaking free from the doldrums, while Sebastian and Mia’s first romantic duet is set above the Los Angeles skyline, its shining lights below both beckoning them and being ignored by their focus on each other. Chazelle doesn’t seem to mind—and we don’t either—that the film often feels consciously staged, with fake backgrounds and obvious sets. The musicals from which he is drawing have always been about making the world gorgeous and alive and intoxicating, and he achieves those feelings over and over again, but without ignoring that escape is always just that, and at some point we have to return to the world with its messy contradictions, impossible situations, and emotional conflict. La La Land gives us the beauty of the world and its harder realities and intertwines them, leaving us with notes of grace and hope and love that transcend cynicism—bulldozes it, really. And that is lovely.

La La Land Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD

Aspect Ratio2.55:1
  • English Dolby Atmos
  • English Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0 Audio Optimized for Late-Night Listening
  • English Descriptive Audio
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish, French
  • Audio commentary by writer/director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz
  • “Another Day of Sun: They Closed Down a Freeway” featurette
  • “La La Land's Great Party” featurette
  • “Ryan Gosling: Piano Student” featurette
  • “Before Whiplash: Damien Chazelle’s Passion Project” featurette
  • “La La Land's Love Letter to Los Angeles” featurette
  • “The Music of La La Land” featurette
  • “John Legend's Acting Debut” featurette
  • “The Look of Love: Designing La La Land” featurette
  • “Ryan and Emma: Third Time’s the Charm” featurette
  • “Epilogue: The Romance of the Dream” featurette
  • Damien & Justin Sing: The Demos
  • Trailers
  • DistributorLionsgate
    Release DateApril 25, 2017

    La La Land looks and sounds utterly fantastic on Blu-ray. The digital presentation is bright and sharp and intensely colorful, with all those strong, richly saturated primary looking particularly impressive. The extra-wide old-school 2.55:1 frame is full of visual nuance, and the transfer from the original celluloid manages black levels and shadow detail with great dexterity. The Dolby Atmos surround soundtrack is striking from start to finish, with the musical sequences being completely enveloping. The disc is also packed with supplements, starting with a lively, enjoyable, and informative audio commentary by writer/director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz; because they have known each other since they were college roommates and have been working on the film together for the better part of a decade, they have a natural rapport and artistic camaraderie. There are also 10 featurettes that together run about 75 minutes in length and offer behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast and crew. The featurettes cover the opening musical number that required the shutting down of a major overpass for three days, the shooting of the party scene, the work that Ryan Gosling did to become an expert pianist in a few short months, the various Los Angeles locations, the acting debut of John Legend, the production design, and the working relationship between Gosling and Emma Stone, among other things. There is also footage of Chazelle and Hurwitz’s singing two songs from the film and several trailers.

    Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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