Damien Chazelle's enchanted musical comedy romance is a tonic for our times. It gladdens the heart that in 2016 you can still make an exuberant pastiche of classic musicals, but one that situates all that Old Hollywood artifice and fantasia squarely in the present. Chazelle pulls it off with flair, creating a CinemaScope movie as colorful and kinetic as his models. It's the wrong question to ask whether this movie is "as good as" MGM wonders like Stanley Donen's and Gene Kelly's It's Always Fair Weather, or French confections like Jacques Demy's and Michel Legrand's The Young Girls of Rochefort and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Rather, we may say that, in the same way they did, it gives us pleasure.
In the past, Chazelle's direction has been criticized, not without cause, for being rather empty, showy and contrived. I'd be surprised, though, if La La Land doesn't make a convert of the suspicious, not least because here the form suits the content. Anyway, I say contemporary filmmaking is far too starved of filmmaking élan. Bobbing on a sea of handheld cameras desultorily following actors around, one grows hungry to see some old-fashioned bells-and-whistles direction. Chazelle sates that hunger.
Whereas Martin Scorsese's New York, New York sought to subvert the conventions of Golden Age musicals by grafting them to New Hollywood realism, La La Land is in a lighter key. Yet that movie still seems a byword for this one, for a certain kind of emotional honesty.
Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a prickly jazz pianist, a musician's musician who dreams of opening his own club. Who can understand that, for him, music is a form of personal expression, when the world just wants him to play Christmas jingles? Emma Stone plays Mia, a barista at a coffee shop on an old-fashioned Hollywood lot, pursuing the perennial L.A. dream: becoming an actress. There's an exuberant number, "Someone in the Crowd," where, dancing from room to room, her housemates cheer her up after a rough audition.
At first, the brusque pianist and the barista can't stand each other (of course they can't). They meet-cute in a great traffic jam on an L.A. freeway, where they annoy each other; their meeting is punctuated by one-finger salutes. They meet again at a pool party, where Sebastian has a gig playing synth in an 80s New Wave cover band. Mia has great fun mocking his Flock of Seagulls moves. She finds him obnoxious and pretentious.
A love affair develops (of course it does), and the story of its development contains real melancholy charm. They move in together. For a time, Sebastian the purist is tempted by the pop life, securing a steady gig with a dynamic jazz-rock star (John Legend). He forgets the dream of the club. But the gig is not really him, and Mia counsels him to keep his eye on his dream even as their relationship is falling apart. In turn, when she gives up, decides she may not have any talent, it's Sebastian who won't let her dream die, even though it may mean they can't be together. In a kind of cadenza of the mind near the end, a sweeping vision flashes before Mia's eyes of a life that might have been.
Method man Gosling's touch here is surprisingly light, a comedy version of De Niro's Jimmy from New York, New York. Stone is inspired. She's every inch of our day, but she has Old Hollywood class. (When a successful actress like Stone plays someone who dreams, with no sure prospects, of being an actress, I like to watch meta realities show through the performance, such as the doubts that must have visited her along the way.)
Chazelle's take on jazz is much more relaxed in La La Land than it was in his last feature, the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes overwrought Whiplash. There, he presented the music as a rather excruciating endurance sport, as if its highest values were disciplinarianism and machine-precision timing. It was a funny way to treat an art form he supposedly loved. As I wrote at the time, "There is much more of the agony than the joy of making music here." Counter La La Land in which, after Mia confesses that she can't stand jazz, Sebastian takes her to a club where some great old cats are playing. He offers an impassioned, critical appreciation, allowing her (and us) to appreciate what he loves about this music.
There's an exhilarating opening flourish which appears to be a six-minute unbroken shot of a traffic jam (as illusory, it turns out, as Hitchcock's "one-take" Rope). Suddenly, blocked motorists exit their vehicles and begin to sing and dance up and down the freeway to a number called "Another Day of Sun." It's as full of the life force as Chazelle's models, a feat of contrapuntal, layered movement and music. It's our first indication that it wasn't only a good idea to make an homage to the direction of Stanley Donen, Busby Berkely and Vincente Minnelli, but that this guy's probably going to pull it off. It even makes you laugh. I was borne up, rarely to come down afterwards.
Los Angeles should be in the credits, but not exactly playing itself. This is the mythic movie-LA. After the couple goes to see Rebel Without a Cause, they make a pilgrimage to Griffith Observatory, which becomes a stage for more dreaming and dancing.
Chazelle's script is modeled on Hepburn/Tracy movies, with their sparkling screenplays penned by the likes of Garson Kanin/Ruth Gordon (Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike) and Ring Lardner, Jr. (Woman of the Year). He's also thinking of the great musical-comedy screenplays of Comden and Green (Singin' in the Rain). Their words thrill; his made me smile.
La La Land opens in select Chicago-area theaters on December 16.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)