La La Land Review
The awards season beast, for those who are unfortunately helpless to look away, tends to turn movies into strangely competitive things, like sports teams or political parties, that people actively root for at the expense of other, similarly situated choices. It's good publicity for the artistic side of film, which too often takes a backseat to commercial considerations, but the scrutiny can be ridiculous. Needless resentment builds up against cinema that just happened to have been released in the same year as another picture someone else might prefer. A perfectly good movie gets prodded and probed repeatedly across various forms of media simply because it dared to be considered for little statues. So often, too, these aren't movies made with the intention of gaining such accolades. The fact that they were made at all can be an achievement in itself.
Indeed, the existence of La La Land - a two-character musical with previously unknown songs made by a young director with no record of box office success who was inspired mainly by films from fifty and sixty years ago - seems almost miraculous. Its subsequent success to the tune of $440 million worldwide box office, fourteen Oscar nominations and six wins is simply remarkable. But the attention clearly breeds criticism and it wasn't difficult to find naysayers eager to take the film down at any opportunity. Whether they were hoping for another film to win the Best Picture Oscar or they simply didn't care for La La Land, the voices of dissent scrutinized Damien Chazelle's film to the nth degree at times and, as we all know, it ended up not even winning the big award in an historic melee of confusion earlier this year.
The point isn't that La La Land should have been immune from all this or even that it cost the film Best Picture. No, the trouble here is that one tends to see things through different filters based on influence. If you were lucky enough to catch the movie before it got muddied then you could have found your own opinion. Those who came later might've had to see it through a prism of unintended hype and buzz. The best route, I think, might be to have seen it initially without the din of the Oscar nominations and then re-visit it now at home only to re-discover how unique of an experience the film is. As well as it played on the big screen - in its exceptionally wide, 2.55:1 aspect ratio - the home viewing experience emphasizes the more intimate moments that really hold everything together like glue.
Viewers still yet to discover the film and its many charms are really in for a treat. The musical element is boldly played up from the beginning, when a freeway traffic jam becomes an impromptu dance number amid the wintry sunshine of southern California. It's a brilliant opening scene that also, eventually, introduces us to the main characters of Mia, played by Emma Stone, and Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling. Both are dreamers struggling to find their way and resistant to compromise. Stone won the Oscar and is generally considered the lead character, but Gosling is remarkable here as well. He's slightly caddish, charismatic to a fault and sells the few dramatic scenes in ways few actors could. Plus, throughout, he's believable as the stubborn, uncompromising jazz lover essentially stuck in the wrong era for his ideals.
As winter leads into spring, the two lead characters meet for a third time, at an eighties-themed pool party where Seb is playing keytar to New Wave classics. Mia requests "I Ran" and we finally have our meet cute, after a couple of earlier failed attempts. It's a great sequence - one of the film's most fun and least heralded - that probably helped Stone collect some of those awards. The set-up of Mia as a struggling actress and Seb a jazz pianist lends La La Land some classic tropes, but the film doesn't really abuse its premise. For all of the talk about the slam-dunk awards prospects surrounding this being a movie concerning Hollywood or acting, it's really not. What Mia does is somewhat peripheral here. The setting is important, absolutely. The sun doesn't really set the same way everywhere as it does in Los Angeles. The seasons, certainly, are more defined in most places than what we see in the film. Still, this isn't a movie that revolves around the acting profession. That happens to be her vocation of interest just as music is Seb's. Little is tied to the specificity of her profession in the way it was in, for example, The Artist or Birdman. The key with both characters is their dedication and that could, theoretically, be to any endeavor.
Summer is the most joyous section of the film, as the two develop a close relationship and recognize the need to take the next steps in their lives. They seem willing to take professional risks that they wouldn't have done had they been alone. Seb takes a job with a band that shares few of his passions, taking him across the country, but he sees the benefit of having a steady income for once. Mia branches out by writing a one-woman play and devoting her energy to eventually staging it. La La Land unfolds like a relationship and these early portions are the exciting time of getting to know each other. This half of the film is far more comedic and lighter in tone than what will follow.
Problems between Mia and Seb come to light in the fall. There's a painful, well-acted scene at the dinner table of Seb's apartment when he's come home unexpectedly between shows to have dinner with Mia. The greenish lighting recalls an earlier use when the two shared the Oscar-winning song "City of Stars" but the mood has become much more tense and uncomfortable. Many of the musical pieces in the film get recycled in different tones, from hopeful to happy to poignant. If you don't fully connect to the music on an initial watch there's a possibility it'll hit you gradually and another viewing will bring it home.
A lengthy coda set five years after we've last seen the pair feels like what's most influenced by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which Chazelle has often referenced as a primary inspiration along with some of the MGM musicals of the 1950s. Without getting into details that could slightly spoil first-time watchers' experiences, it's enough to comment on just how much of a downward emotional spin the film takes here. The fantasy peek-in Seb takes can be felt as incredibly sad - both because the viewer is trained to wish it were so and because it feels personal. It reminds us of our own failures, our unrealized hopes and dreams and anxieties over what might have been. It's here, too, that La La Land reveals itself to be not the warm and fuzzy distraction its critics sometimes painted it as in the post-Trump environment we all found ourselves in earlier this year. One can argue that this is ultimately a downbeat, melancholy movie filled, like life, with sparks of fleeting euphoria. It shows two individuals who must struggle and compromise, despite resisting to do so repeatedly, to find success in their careers, only to have their personal life together disrupted beyond repair. It's not a happy ending, and it very much resists feeling like one.
Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment roll out the red carpet for this Region A-locked release of La La Land. Containing Blu-ray, DVD and a Digital HD code that can be redeemed on iTunes or Ultraviolet, the release is pretty well stuffed with extra material. (Still, the sticker promising "over 3 hours of special features" on the slipcover is somewhat misleading since an audio commentary runs the 2+ hour length of the movie.)
From the start, the film opens with an expanding frame to showcase the very wide 2.55:1 aspect ratio. The HD transfer makes good use of the bright, colorful look of the film without ever veering into overly artificial or odd-looking territory. Detail varies from scene to scene but is generally quite excellent. Blacks look sufficiently deep and inky. On the whole, there's little to quibble with here and certainly no glaring digital imperfections.
There are quite a few audio options available on the La La Land Blu-ray, something for everyone. The default track is an English Dolby Atmos that is close to perfection. It handles dialogue and music equally well, as the songs especially engulf the listener. Non-musical moments, like the car horns and other freeway sounds from the opening number are just as impressive. There are also Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital and French 5.1 Dolby Digital dubs, an English 2.0 Dolby Digital Audio Optimized for Late-Night Listening track, and an English Descriptive Audio option. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish and English for the hearing impaired.
An audio commentary featuring writer/director Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz is pretty entertaining, with the two longtime friends bickering and playing off one another. I particularly liked hearing some of the specific influences Chazelle mentions, as he seems to have a strong sense and love of film history. Stick around to the end credits, too, because the conversation about the film's poor test screenings is fascinating.
There are a number of featurettes covering a wide variety of aspects of the film and adding up to roughly eighty minutes in total. These include:
"Another Day of Sun: They Closed Down a Freeway" (10:36) - the filmmakers talk about the 3-day shutdown of an L.A. freeway ramp to rehearse and shoot the opening musical number
"La La Land's Great Party" (5:08) - the challenges of the nocturnal Hollywood pool party shoot
"Ryan Gosling: Piano Student" (5:02) - the actor spent three months learning piano to prepare for the role and we hear from Gosling and his teacher
"Before Whiplash: Damien Chazelle's Passion Project" (10:12) - the director talks about the six-year journey to get La La Land made and mentions some of his influences, like the films of Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly and Vincente Minnelli
"La La Land's Love Letter to Los Angeles" (6:56) - the role the city plays in the film is briefly discussed
"The Music of La La Land" (13:32) - fairly self-explanatory but this piece delves into the specific music and songs from the film
"John Legend's Acting Debut" (4:40) - the singer gets his first major acting role as Keith, an old school acquaintance of Sebastian's, and also adds some musical influence
"The Look of Love: Designing La La Land" (8:48) - production designers David and Sandy Wasco discuss the influences and ideas behind the sets
"Ryan and Emma: Third Time's the Charm" (5:51) - stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone had previously worked together on a pair of films and their chemistry is the focus here
"Epilogue: The Romance of the Dream" (7:54) - the melancholy ending, inspired by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and a fondness for Hollywood dream ballets of earlier musicals, is discussed by Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz
"Damien and Justin Sing: The Demos" are short, early versions of "City of Stars" (3:13) and "What a Waste of a Lovely Night" (1:55) as sung by the writer/director and composer of the movie
A neat option lets you go right to the songs in the movie via Song Selection from the menu. It allows the viewer to access: "Another Day of Sun" (3:43), "Someone in the Crowd" (4:38), "Mia and Sebastian's Theme - 01 Mia's Storyline" (1:16), "Mia and Sebastian's Theme - 02 Sebastian's Storyline" (1:17), "A Lovely Night" (4:08), "Herman's Habit" (1:45), "City of Stars - Pier" (1:46), "Planetarium" (4:17), "Summer Montage" (2:01), "Acoustic Jam Session" (0:58), "City of Stars - Duet in Apt." (4:36), "Start a Fire" (2:59), "Audition" (3:22), "Epilogue" (8:01), and "City of Stars - Mia Humming, Credits" (3:57)
A Marketing Gallery offers three separate trailers for the film (1:35, 1:33, 2:14) plus a poster gallery.