La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016) 4 out of 4 stars
From its exuberant opening musical number, set atop a traffic-jammed Los Angeles freeway overpass, La La Land announces its intention to win your heart through whimsy. With songs and score (alternately toe-tapping and soulful) by composer Justin Hurwitz (Whiplash) and dances (alternately snappy and romantic) by choreographer Mandy Moore (Silver Linings Playbook, So You Think You Can Dance), the film breezes through a celebration of dreams and passion, equal parts comedy and drama. At its center are two magnetic performances by lead actors Emma Stone (Magic in the Moonlight) and Ryan Gosling (The Big Short), as Mia and Sebastian, two young artists – she an actress and he a jazz pianist – who meet and fall in love while struggling to make it in their respective fields. Writer/director Damien Chazelle, who mesmerized us with his 2014 Whiplash, proves that he can tackle the same themes as before but in illuminating new ways, all the while creating a dazzling tribute to Hollywood and its legacy of charming musical confections.
I’ve now seen the film twice (my initial capsule review is embedded in my write-up of the Middleburg Film Festival), and like it even more after the second viewing. I had initial reservations about Stone’s and Gosling’s talents as singers and dancers – they are capable, if not quite polished – but the sweet, unaffected way they gamely go about their paces (after months of rehearsal) becomes part of the movie’s aesthetic, with neither Hurwitz nor Moore asking too much of them. They’re no Fred and Ginger (nor Gene and Judy, nor Gene and Rita, etc.), but they don’t need to be for Chazelle to cast his spell. Rather, they need to be believable in the universe he fashions out of tinsel and tune, and they are. From the moment they appear on screen, Gosling all bristling cynicism and Stone all desperate hope, they clash and unite in a fiery combination that recalls the best romantic dramedies of yore while creating a relationship thoroughly of our time.
Indeed, it’s this update of the musical genre, simultaneously looking backwards and forwards, that lends the movie much of its power. As we watch Sebastian and Mia navigate the pitfalls of the music and studio worlds, we find ourselves immersed in the tradition of the great MGM musicals of the famed Freed Unit (such as Singin’ in the Rain or, especially, An American in Paris), always aware, however, that the time is now. Chazelle asks us to consider how and whether art and commerce can coexist, and what might be the human cost of holding on to a belief in the former even as one is overcome by the latter. It makes perfect sense to set his story in “La La Land” (i.e., Los Angeles), since Hollywood has always been the locus of such concerns, where money rules but cultural prestige is forever sought. Beyond the love story, this is a movie about movies, writ large.
The very first image we see announces Chazelle’s grand ambitions: we see a black-and-white square frame – the old pre-1953 Academy aspect ratio of 4:3 – with the word CinemaScope framed in the center, its right and left syllables cut off, which suddenly expands to the wider aspect ratio that the word implies (in this case, 2.55:1), gaining color at the same time. This will be a big movie, emotionally affecting, intellectually satisfying and deeply entertaining. The later numbers do not disappoint, from a night-on-the-town party scene to a pas-de-deux in the Hollywood hills to a waltz in the Griffith planetarium; it’s all joyous good fun. What makes the whole affair more than a modern retelling of the same old love story, however, is its final scenes, where all does not go as expected and Chazelle ups the cinematic ante in an ending montage that will take your breath away. The director, not yet 31, is most definitely a young man to watch.
Beyond the pitch-perfect Stone and Gosling, the ensemble cast, including many unknowns, is a delight. Musician John Legend appears as a rival/colleague of Sebastian’s, while J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) shows up briefly as a jerk of a boss. In many ways, though, it’s Hurwitz and Moore who are the real stars, crafting beautiful routines that transport us into the magical fairyland of the world’s dream factory (the final credit even reads “Made in Hollywood, USA”). I highly recommend.