By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Toronto Review: LA LA LAND

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When a movie like La La Land is so buzzed about and this heavily lauded, it can feel when you’re trying to write a review, you’re only chiming in rather than saying anything fresh or interesting. “It’s a Best Picture racehorse,” you’ll read; “It’s a prizewinner in any regard,” handicappers agree; “It’s an astounding, fantastic, emotionally overwhelming American m-o-v-i-e movie,” your musically-inclined movie-going friends (or parents) will sing. It’s great. It’s grand. I loved it. You will too.

And yet this Ryan Gosling-Emma Stone musical love-letter duet to creativity is not my favorite film at TIFF; it may not crack my top five of the year.

How can a film so intensely gorgeous and show-stopping as La La Land not find lodge in my mind? I keep forgetting I have seen it. In the days following the Toronto premiere of Damien Chazelle’s legitimately monumental effort, I find myself more drawn to thinking about the wispy, ethereal darkness of Nocturnal Animals and the study in subtlety of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. (Not to mention the three (!) masterpieces from earlier festivals, Paterson, Toni Erdmann, and Manchester by the Sea.) These movies may not stick around as long as La La Land (especially at the box-office) but they are certainly riskier in ways that resonate and register beyond my serotonin levels.

Maybe this isn’t fair. Unrelated comparisons suck as much as indiscriminate movie cynicism. La La Land’s energetic and vibrant pastiche of Old Hollywood practices and obsolete forms of expression result in an indelible movie. My face was warm throughout; I was out of breath at its emotional finale. It’s two hours of frisson, anchored by a wonderful Emma Stone performance that needs only two words (“I Ran!”) to demonstrate how truly fun and escapist it is.

The idea that a movie is faultless is crazy, because perfection is an intangible, untenable ideal. But 31-year-old Chazelle has managed to get near, arriving at an extremely close sweet spot of accessible depth and toe-tapping entertainment. If it survives the award-season onslaught of negative knee-jerking (just look at what became of The Artist), you can wave hello to a new American classic. If this is cotton candy, it’s woven from the clouds of movies beloved by millions.

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“I always thought that once I had lived in Chicago for a while, it would be interesting to do a portrait of the city – but to do it at a significant time. Figuring out when would be the ideal time to do that was the trick. So when this election came around, coupled with the Laquan McDonald trial, it seemed like the ideal time to do the story. Having lived in Chicagoland for thirty-five-plus years and done a number of films here, I’ve always been struck by the vibrancy of the city and its toughness. Its tenderness too. I’ve always been interested in the people at the center of all the stories. This is a different film in that regard, because we’re not following a couple of individuals over the course of the project in the way that a lot of the films I’ve done have, but I still feel like people’s voices and aspirations and hopes are at the center of this series.

It wasn’t easy. We started back in July 2018, it was actually on the Fourth of July – that was our first shoot. It’s like most documentaries in that the further you go along the more involved and obsessed you get, and you just start shooting more and more and more. We threw ourselves into this crazy year in Chicago. We got up every day and tried to figure out if we should be out shooting or not, and what it is we should shoot. We were trying to balance following this massive political story of the mayor’s race and these significant moments like the Laquan McDonald trial with taking the pulse of people in the city that we encounter along the way and getting a sense of their lives and what it means to live here. By election day, Zak Piper, our producer, had something like six cameras out in the field. You could double-check that, it might have been seven. We had this organized team effort to hit all the candidates as they were voting, if they hadn’t already voted. We hit tons of polling places, were at the Board of Elections and then were at the parties for the candidates that we had been able to follow closely. Then of course, we were trying to make sure we were at the parties of the candidates who made it to the runoff. So, yeah, it was kind of a monster.”
~ Steve James On City So Real

“I really want to see The Irishman. I’ve heard it’s big brother Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. But I really can’t find the time. The promotion schedule is so tight, there’s no opportunity to see a three and a half-hour movie. But I really want to see it. In 2017, right before Okja’s New York premiere, I had the chance to go to Scorsese’s office, which is in the DGA building. There’s a lovely screening room there, too, with film prints that he’s collected. I talked to him for about an hour. There’s no movie he hasn’t seen, even Korean films. We talked about what he’s seen and his past work. It was a glorious day. I’ve loved his work since I was in college. Who doesn’t? Anyone involved with movies must feel the same way.”
~ Bong Joon-ho