La La Land reviews: Critics sing to the tune of a major Oscar contender
On the cusp of what’s expected to be a full awards season plate for director Damien Chazelle, movie critics are singing and dancing to the tune of La La Land, his crowd-pleasing modern musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as a pair of Hollywood hopefuls who fall in love against the backdrop of the City of Angels.
Continuing its momentum after strong showings on the fall festival circuit, beginning when it premiered in August at Venice to rave reviews, mainstream movie critics are hailing La La Land as one of the best movies of the year, with EW’s Chris Nashawaty calling the film “two hours of blissful shoot-the-works exuberance” that “will make you feel like you’re walking on air” in his A-grade review.
Writing for The Daily Beast, Jen Yamato calls Chazelle’s romantic streak palpable, noting it “breathes and flutters and swells with its wonderfully nostalgic hopefulness” to “powerful and overwhelming” results. AwardsDaily‘s Sasha Stone echoes the sentiment, praising Chazelle’s ability to tap into universal feelings of sweetness and love tinged with regret that culminates in a devastatingly beautiful final scene that becomes “a piece that strikes at the heart like the last match to light a fire on a cold winter night.”
In terms of the Oscar race, La La Land has shown up at every major precursor thus far, nabbing 12 nominations at the Critics Choice Awards (one of the most accurate forecasters of Academy taste), earning a spot on the National Board of Review‘s top 10 films of 2016, winning the New York Film Critics Circle‘s Best Film award, and earning five runner-up prizes from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association — including in the Best Picture and Best Director categories. La La Land also claimed the coveted TIFF People’s Choice Award in September, an honor that has gone to a Best Picture winner or nominee seven times since 2008.
Critical notices, while singling out Chazelle’s orchestration of impressive dance sequences and Justin Hurwitz’s original compositions, seemingly praise the work of the film’s actors — particularly Stone — above all. Though she takes issue with the film’s jarring nods to classic films of the past, MTV News‘ Amy Nicholson praises Stone’s leading performance in her review, stressing the actress deserves “ovation” for her work, that she “doesn’t just read lines; she seems to live each syllable individually” and “can change emotions mid-word.”
As several critics indicate, Stone and Gosling are poised to earn Academy Award nominations for their work on the project, after Stone took the Venice Film Festival’s Volpi Cup for her leading role, and seems likely to earn a nomination from the first major industry guild to announce its nominations — the Screen Actors Guild — on Wednesday. SAG (and the Academy) have, in the recent past, typically gone for films and performances that directly reference the entertainment industry itself; Best Picture winners like 2014’s Birdman, 2012’s Argo, and 2011’s The Artist each earned major nominations and wins from SAG along the precursor trail, likely because their narratives revolve around characters with ties to Hollywood, and that speaks to SAG’s large voter base of more than 100,000 active, voting members. As La La Land similarly charts the personal and professional woes of struggling entertainment industry hopefuls, it’s likely to resonate with those among SAG’s membership who can identify with its characters.
For now, out of the gate, La La Land has strong reviews bolstering its standing in the race ahead. See what the critics are saying in front of La La Land‘s Dec. 16 theatrical bow in the excerpts below.
Chris Nashawaty (EW)
“There have been a handful of lavish, big-studio musicals in recent years. But for the most part, they’ve been bloated Broadway adaptations full of sound and fury. And some moviegoers may, no doubt, feel a little tentative about the genre. But La La Land is the anti-whatever those are. It’s more intimate and personal and affecting…more magical. My advice is to see La La Land and surrender to it. It will make you feel like you’re walking on air too.”
Sasha Stone (AwardsDaily)
“There are movies that are built around a character and an actress that leave no one immune to their delights. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of those. Casablanca is another. Shakespeare in Love is one too. Whether those onscreen who pursue them are left with happiness by the end or grief makes no difference because the real relationship that’s happening is between you and her. You, no matter what your sexual preference. You, no matter how cold and bitter your heart. That movie this year at Telluride is La La Land and that actress is Emma Stone… La La Land, despite being a musical set in Los Angeles as a tremendously entertaining romantic comedy, is really about the right and wrong choices. La La Land is everything you’ve already read. A triumph of cinema, a work of art, an homage to the great French musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that seem to have, at least partly, inspired it. But if La La Land was only its first two thirds, that’s all it would be. In the end it transcends all of those things to become a piece that strikes at the heart like the last match to light a fire on a cold winter night.”
Jen Yamato (The Daily Beast)
“Chazelle’s clear-eyed romantic streak surfaces every time La La Land breathes and flutters and swells with its wonderfully nostalgic hopefulness, particularly when Justin Hurwitz’s exquisitely melancholy songs and score take center stage. Mia and Sebastian’s most memorable prelude-to-romance false start takes place in the restaurant where he grudgingly plays Christmas jingles for tips. He’s compelled to play something else as the lights dim for the film’s audience, and an exquisite, yearning, aching new song surges forth. It is his and Mia’s song. When Chazelle pays off the emotional impact he earns in that one moment, the result is real and powerful and overwhelming—and utterly, beautifully cinematic.”
A.O. Scott (The New York Times)
“Like a capable bandleader or stage illusionist, Mr. Chazelle knows how to structure a set, to slacken the pace at times in order to build toward a big finish. He memorably pushed Whiplash to a complex and thrilling musical climax, and he outdoes himself in the last 20 minutes of La La Land, and outdoes just about every other director of his generation, wrapping intense and delicate emotions in sheer, intoxicating cinematic bliss.The final sequence — one last audition, followed by a swirl of rapturous, heart-tugging music and ballet — effectively cashes the check the rest of the movie has written. On first viewing, for the first 90 minutes or so, you may find your delight shadowed by skepticism. Where is this going? Can this guy pull it off? Are these kids going to make it? Should we care? By the end, those questions vanish under a spell of enchantment.”
Amy Nicholson (MTV News)
“Nostalgia — especially the type of nostalgia designed solely for knowing nods — gets in the way of the film’s ability to run. Eventually, La La’s light-footed glee will trip over its baggage. Maybe you’ll roll your eyes when, after Stone clicks her car fob like a castanet (the film’s first and only modern touch), Gosling swings on a lamppost like Singin’ in the Rain. Or when Stone slips into yet another modest Umbrellas of Cherbourg–styled frock to attend yet another hip Hollywood party blasting jazz instead of the chill-out synth music that numbs most soirees. Or maybe you’ll hold out until Chazelle can’t think of anything better to do than stick balloons in Stone’s hands like Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. You’re forever getting kicked out of the moment and asked to applaud… Of course, fantasies sell musicals. Here, the dream world reigns supreme. And La La Land is a strong contender to dominate the Oscars; Academy voters can’t help picking the film that elevates their jobs to a moral imperative (see also: The Artist, Birdman, Argo). But I can’t help wishing that La La Land felt more like Chazelle’s personal vision — that he tap-danced his own path — instead of this eager-to-please mash-up, the movie equivalent of samba tapas. As Sebastian sighs, ‘That’s L.A. They worship everything and they value nothing.’ Maybe Chazelle fits in after all.”
David Edelstein (Vulture)
“Inapt words are going to be used to describe La La Land, like pastiche and homage. It’s more than that. In one scene, Sebastian plays a record of a jazz pianist while sitting next to his own piano. He listens to a phrase, stops the record, and reproduces it. Then he does it all again. He’s slavishly imitating — but for the sake of getting inside the head of an artist he loves. That’s what Chazelle has done with musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and A Star Is Born and Singin’ in the Rain. He has learned their language, found their spark, and made their form triumphantly his own.”
Pete Hammond (Deadline)
“Coming off the promise of the Oscar winning Whiplash, it will be no surprise that writer/director Damien Chazelle is a talented filmmaker, but that movie did not prepare me for the experience of seeing La La Land, his homage to the great screen musicals of French director Jacques Demy as well as MGM’s golden era. But this is too smart a movie maker to just do a simple tribute to a bygone era, his film starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is a gorgeous romantic fever dream of a musical that should hit contemporary audiences right in their sweet spot. It has been a very long time since we have seen something quite this lyrical, lovely, and most importantly, original on the screen, but at the same time it is a musical that has its feet firmly planted in the real world, even if the one up there on the wide Cinemascope screen is very stylized.”
Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter)
“Happily, the two leads are clearly entirely in synch with [Chazelle’s] objectives. Sebastian has a certain gruff impatience and short temper born of creative frustration, but the concern and love he feels for Mia doesn’t take long to well up. Gosling may not be a trained dancer or musician, but his moves are appealingly his own and months of piano practice have given him convincing style on the keyboards. Stone is simply a joy as the eternally aspiring actress it’s hard to believe is being passed over. Emotionally alive and able to shift gears on a dime, Stone is all the more convincing in this context as she has the kind of looks that would have been appealing in any era, particularly the 1930s and 1950s.”
Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian)
“It’s an unapologetically romantic homage to classic movie musicals, splashing its poster-paint energy and dream-chasing optimism on the screen. With no little audacity, La La Land seeks its own place somewhere on a continuum between Singin’ in the Rain and Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, with a hint of Alan Parker’s Fame for the opening sequence, in which a bunch of young kids with big dreams, symbolically stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway leading to Los Angeles, get out of their cars and stage a big dance number.”
Eric Kohn (Indiewire)
“At its best, La La Land probes the irony of its existence, celebrating the greatness of a bygone era in the context of changing times. ‘That’s LA,’ Sebastian concludes. ‘They worship everything and they value nothing.’ But that doesn’t stop him from getting fired up about the underlying power of classic jazz. ‘You can’t hear it,’ he implores Mia. ‘You have to see it.’ To that end, La La Land succeeds in making its sweet imagery sing, particularly with the sensational finale. In a wordless explosion of lights and shadows, Chazelle reignites the movie with fresh context that forces it to get real. Here, he arrives at the wrenching conclusion that even the most vibrant fantasy eventually must fade to black.”
Alonso Duralde (The Wrap)
“TCM addicts will swoon over that traffic-jam number, not to mention a dance sequence that delightfully defies gravity. The vocal duets between Stone and Gosling are charming even though they both have singing voices that might diplomatically be called ‘naturalistic.’ (Similarly, the songs by composer Justin Hurwitz and Broadway lyricists Pasek and Paul aren’t traditional show-stoppers, but they sneak up on you by the second reprise.) … Gosling and Stone’s powerful chemistry is as palpable as it was in Crazy Stupid Love — they were that film’s sole selling point — and each of them conveys their character’s love of the arts and drive to succeed.”
Owen Gleiberman (Variety)
“La La Land isn’t a masterpiece (and on some level it wants to be). Yet it’s an exciting ramble of a movie, ardent and full of feeling, passionate but also exquisitely — at times overly — controlled. It winds up swimming in melancholy, yet its most convincing pleasures are the moments when it lifts the audience into a state of old-movie exaltation, leading us to think, ‘What a glorious feeling. I’m happy again.’”