If there is a movie god then the buzz around this film suggests he was with 31-year old writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, 2014) and his stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, when they made La La Land. Once, maybbbeee twice a year there is a film that captures lightning in a bottle. La La Land, whether it’s worthy of it or not, is undeniably the lightning in a bottle film of 2016.
While set in modern Los Angeles, Chazelle transports us to the lush and dreamy LA of yesteryear, which may or may not still exist somewhere in the sun kissed town. The opening scene in an LA traffic jam features a tracking shot that enthusiastically glides around to capture the spirit of the era this film comes from. It also introduces us to Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring actress and small time jazz pianist, who are trying to squeeze by and make their dreams come true.
Like all great musicals, emotion and character is expressed through catchy songs and “how did they do that?” dance numbers. La La Land is a post-modern musical that LOVES movies (feels like a cousin to 2011’s Hugo) and figuratively dances through cinema’s greatest hits while literally walking through studio backlots. This Hollywood dream tour is coated with some of cinema’s most enchanting films: Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), An American in Paris (1951) Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).
Chazelle and co. craft the locations of apartments, studio backlots, Hollywood parties, and LA streets with a tactile, studio era quality. The direction is vibrant and energized — although Chazelle’s aesthetic and choreography occasionally leans toward artificiality and looks like a coca cola commercial (not as bad as it sounds). But most importantly, Mia and Sebastian’s romantic relationship — and shared dream of being successful artists — is emotionally articulated by Chazelle through the dreamlike language of cinema and reaches heavenly moments when it ventures into the abstract.
Stone and Gosling are the ideal modern movie stars to embody old-fashioned plucky sincerity. Their chemistry lights romantic sparks and electrifies the entire film. Neither are professional singers, but both sing live and it gives the film — and their characters — a relatable emotionality that cuts through on a gut level in a way that recent musicals haven’t. Stone is the star of the film and she’s “can’t take your eyes off her” great as she communicates her character’s emotional desires through not just song and dance, but expressions and gestures. Gosling as second in command has no problem relying on Gene Kellyisms and giving the spotlight to Stone. He already gave an all time comic performance earlier this year in the nice guys.
A surface reading of the film might say that it’s merely an impressive homage to the films that Chazelle loves (boy does he love The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), but he’s up to more than daydreaming about the past. LA is a mythic dream factory that’s constantly idealized by its incoming inhabitants. Throughout the film, Mia and Sebastian’s dreams and perception of the town are bluntly intruded upon. It’s nostalgic for sure, but it’s not solely a nostalgic film; rather, a film about how such an iconic location is romanticized and how that affects those who dare to believe it’s real (much like Hail, Caesar!).
La La Land is aware and proud of its earnestness. The meld of dreams in content/form has sensational surface pleasures, but it’s also concerned with their effect on reality, which eventually decays the musical form that we’d been a concert-attendee of in the first half. As reality hits our starry eyed lovers, Chazelle peels back and attempts to analyze their dreams. The emotionally bursting musical form sails away as Mia and Sebastian’s careers rotate in different directions.
Where the first half expressed character’s emotions through lush color, song, and dance, the beginning of the second half displays it in confrontational dialogue. The operatic emotion and flying camera turns into a 2 shot close up expressing the effect that earnest dreams have had on Mia and Sebastian. Without the musicality there’s a lack of pathos to the characters during these scenes. The glaring flaw is that their conflict is a misunderstanding instead of internal conflict.
In the context of this form, the characters are not much different than those in 40s & 50s musicals (notably Rogers & Astaire films), but here it’s more obvious because Chazelle is critiquing the form, and by spending a significant amount of time doing this he’s neutering the energy that he’d built up. The execution of this pit-stop into contrived conflict is flawed and highlights how thin the characters are outside of their musical bursts, but it also works a benefit to the film that the character’s become messier as reality hits. Thematically it richens the film’s scope of dreams & ambitions vs. love.
So, the transition from rip-roaring musical to dialogue isn’t perfectly clean, but that’s like complaining about a few scratches on a Corvette; it’s still a Corvette! This is not be groundbreaking in form or content but it pushes against the edges of the genre, and I don’t know that a musical has cinematically conveyed the feeling of what it means for artists to dream and then reconcile with those dreams in a sweeping, abstract, and personal way quite like this has.
The film’s songs become progressively more intimate and towards the end there’s a jaw droppingly abstract musical sequence that puts a final musical crescendo on the character’s arcs and the film’s statement on dreams. Chazelle cinematically articulates the purposefulness of dreams, what they meant, and how much they cost. During this goose bump-inducing finale you feel the emotional heartbreak of the character’s journeys, and I swear that the face of the movie god flickered on screen. It’s the most euphoric sequence of filmmaking since all 118 minutes of Carol.
While perhaps not as masterful and original as the films it echoes, it is certainly just as passionate, and the passage of time since such a Hollywood existed gives it a heartbreaking melancholy. Damien Chazelle’s romantic ode to Hollywood and musicals is joyful, emotional, and euphoric cinema that levitates the audience in its wondrous LA dream factory before landing them in a bittersweet reality with an understanding of what those dreams meant. La La Land is a musical constellation orbiting between a lump in your throat, that face you make right before you cry, and a smile of contentment.
Grade: A The best musical, well…. since Von Trier made Bjork sing an entire movie (Dancer in the Dark, 2000).