Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is like a delectable blender of the most dazzling qualities of old school musicals. The 21st century has seen no shortage of attempts to bring the traditional musical back into the mainstream from Moulin Rouge, Chicago, and a slew of other Broadway adaptations. All of them feel like pale warm-ups to La La Land, which is the real deal. From its astonishing opening musical number set in a traffic jam to its closing musical number, the movie splendidly captures the look, sound and feel of the golden era of musicals for the modern age.
I would happily see La La Land a second and third time just for that opening number. It begins in gridlock traffic in Los Angeles on a bridge (where a real bridge section was apparently closed down for filming) as the camera floats through and stops at a young female driver leaning back in her car. She softly starts singing a tune and joyously walks around to other young drivers in the traffic as if to tap the others in the shoulder in musical fashion. The camera glides as each driver picks up his or her cue until the drivers make music out of their car horns and dance on top of their cars to ingest the sunny weather (the song is aptly called “Another Day of Sun”). Crucially, while probably enhanced by CGI to stitch a few disparate long takes, the sequence contains no visible cut that would hamper the actors and camera respectively dancing and gliding through.
It is a fitting setup for a story about aspiring dreamers in modern day LA. The opening number ends as the scene rests on two of them, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). She is an aspiring Hollywood actress and he is a jazz pianist who hopes to open a jazz club. It is not a cute meeting at first as they pass each other as rude drivers on the freeway. After a refreshing series of moments in which they humorously grate on each other (including a clever joke about Priuses), they eventually fall in love, she leaving her uncaring boyfriend behind. The movie contrives two homages to classic movies to make that happen. One is an invitation from him to show her a revival of Rebel Without a Cause. The other is an exuberant evening sequence of Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers style singing and tap dancing, choreographed by Mandy Moore (no relation to the singer).
This is 31-year old writer/director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to the more abrasive but equally brilliant Whiplash. While this movie shares some of the same themes, a dedication to loving jazz music, and a welcome cameo by J.K. Simmons who won an Oscar® for that previous film, I did not expect his follow-up to be this graceful and charming. Chazelle and his musical composer, Justin Hurwitz, who met as Harvard roommates in college, reportedly started a fruitful collaboration as Chazelle asked Hurwitz if he would compose his movies about music. If they continue to make more musically themed movies down the road, it will be intriguing to see the moods and shades they may explore between abrasive and charming.
In addition to the said classic homages, the movie draws from several other key inspirations, from Singin’ in the Rain to most notably Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. One characteristic of those musicals that La La Land embraces is the vibrancy of color to support the musicality. With costume designer Mary Zophres and cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who shoots in the wider Cinemascope format, Chazelle makes that quality all of his own with a color palette that is every bit as radiant as his influences. If the older films were often set in sunny or rainy environs, the cinematography here, after the opening, brings out the radiance of stars in the night to complement the film’s key thematic tune, “City of Stars.” Against this backdrop, the bright, candy-colored costuming comes most strikingly to life, especially in a song sequence that has Mia and her friends prepare to go to an LA party and confidently strut on the street in sync holding their different colored dresses.
For all the film’s glittering visual artifice, however, Chazelle wisely does not drive his story into complete fairy tale fantasy with reality in the rear view mirror. As their relationship grows, both Mia and Sebastian face setback after setback in their attempts to fulfill their aspirations. While she barely scrapes by working as a coffee barista with one failed addition after another, he has trouble setting up his own club with which he hopes to preserve the fading essence of traditional jazz. To support himself, he joins a friend, Keith (John Legend) in a contemporary touring band that goes against his core musical philosophy and imposes long periods of separation on the couple. All of this leads to an emotional argument played as straight drama when the scales balancing between their relationship and their individual dreams tip over. After Stone and Gosling shared the screen as supporting players in Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad, it is a pleasure to see their effortless chemistry, both positive and negative, ground the story while they do their own singing.
The film is not perfect. The number that impressively begins in the aforementioned dress-up scene ends in the LA party on a melody that musically feels like a repetition of the spectacular opening number. An early scene with Sebastian and his very matter-of-fact sister, Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt) is also not written with as much care and wit to really make an impression in the story. In addition, as much as I like Ryan Gosling for his dedication to the interesting roles he chooses, one complaint that I have is that he does not seem to register much emotion when honing his technique. A more subtly expressive actor could have conveyed a slight sense of joy in, for example, the scene where he is defiantly playing his own piano music at the nightclub run by J.K. Simmons’ character (which, to Gosling’s credit, he committedly learned to play himself). Stone, in contrast, sells every moment of bliss, as when she is dancing with Gosling against the evening backdrop or the observatory, and every moment of heartbreak, as when she sings in another standout moment at an audition, “Here’s to the hearts who dream…”
All the quibbles recede against the numerous pleasures of La La Land, however, as it all culminates in a show-stopping closing musical number. I would not dream of revealing too much about it other than to say that it serves as a beautiful musical reflection meshing reality and fantasy. As that number swells and gets better, it crystallizes one of the truest reasons for why we go to old-fashioned musicals in the first place: escapist wish fulfillment.
USA. 2016. Amazon Studios presents a film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson. Rated PG-13 for some language.