La La Land Written and directed by Damien Chazelle; with Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons
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Retro, not only as a style but as a worldview, informs “La La Land,” a musical by the 31-year-old American director Damien Chazelle, who won acclaim for his 2014 movie, “Whiplash.” The new film is studded with allusions to classic Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, to the two formative musicals by the French director Jacques Demy, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” and also to Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York” (which itself referenced the various versions of “A Star Is Born”). The cinematic miracle that occurs in Chazelle’s picture – and it is no less than a miracle – is that this does not result in a mishmash bordering on the decadent. Far from it: it’s an original, distinctive, smart, witty work, whose use of its materials and allusions is utterly contemporary. “La La Land” is the most significant addition to the musical genre – which I am personally fond of and nostalgic for – in decades.
Even if we are inundated these days with music on reality shows and video clips, to make a musical today – a genre that’s considered dead – is an act of cinematic boldness. In this case, the surprise entailed in its making is equaled only by the surprising enthusiasm and high regard with which it’s been received. Moreover, this is a musical that was written specifically for the screen (by the director), like most of the old musicals; original works always outshone Broadway hits that were adapted for the screen. Most recent movie musicals have been film versions of theater hits, and apart from Rob Marshall’s “Chicago,” which won an Oscar, they all lacked drive and inspiration (and we won’t forgive Marshall for what he did to the brilliant musical “Nine”).
Chazelle emerges as a filmmaker with a deep, love-filled understanding of the musical genre. And that love, rather than blinding him, enables him to be both inside the movie and outside it at the same time – and this is what makes it so contemporary.
“La La Land” begins with a tour de force. The opening scene is a vast traffic jam at the entrance to Los Angeles. Each driver, alone in the car, is listening to the music of his or her taste. Gradually, all the drivers leave their cars and become a unified group that breaks into a sweeping, rhythmic musical number, shot in one long take.
It’s in this scene that the two protagonists meet. Mia (Emma Stone) dreams of becoming an actress. In the meantime, she is enduring a series of humiliating auditions and working in a café located in the Warner Bros. studio. She lives with four flamboyant women in an apartment whose walls are covered with classic-movie posters, not necessarily musicals. (Special homage is paid to Ingrid Bergman, whose likeness is seen several times – and yes, “Casablanca” is also alluded to.) Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a grouchy, solitary pianist who laments the fading of the music he loves and dreams of restoring it to its past glory (perhaps as Chazelle aspires to revive the musicalgenre). The Mia-Sebastian story proceeds along the usual romantic path: from reciprocal hostility to falling in love. But the use of this device is part of the theoretical layer of the film, which, being a musical, obeys genre-driven formulas.
Art and compromise
The developing relationship between Mia and Sebastian has to overcome a host of hurdles, stemming from their differing ambitions, their efforts at mutual support in fulfilling those ambitions, and the inevitable conflict between a commitment to their art and necessary compromise, namely commercialization. The love story, whose beauty resides in its directness and simplicity, is graced with fine musical numbers (music: Justin Hurwitz; lyrics: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). Some of them are ensemble pieces, though most are performed by the two leads.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are not great singers or dancers, but it’s precisely this that generates the charm of their musical numbers. As such, this element of their performances – Stone even has a surly, melancholy solo, shot close-up – goes beyond the imitation of past stars of musicals and enters the realm in which song and dance constitute a direct expression of emotions, dreams and passions. It also plays up and symbolizes the limitations inherent in their aspirations to realize their dreams, along with their readiness to overcome those limitations and pay the price this entails.
Stone, her large, beautiful eyes expressing intense, rapidly shifting emotions, shows once more what a fine actress she is. Gosling, who is also one of the best screen actors working today, whom we are accustomed to seeing mainly in tormented dramatic roles, is impressive in creating the character of the tormented musician, but also reveals another facet of his screen personality: he is looser here than ever before, a welcome departure.
The musical scenes with the two leads are shot against the handsome backdrop of Los Angeles, or in the planetarium that was used for a key scene in Nicholas Ray’s 1955 movie “Rebel Without a Cause,” which Mia and Sebastian watch. (The planetarium is shot exactly as it was in Ray’s picture, as Chazelle shows by incorporating the original scene.) Indeed, the widescreen cinematography by Linus Sandgren is stunning, notably the night scenes, which take place in empty sites lit by street lamps. The gorgeous visual design at times evokes a Jacques Demy-like harmony of color – the thrust for harmony, typically between a man and a woman being a basic element of the movie musical.
Chazelle has made one of the most distinctive and, I would add, one of the most exciting films of our time. The movie falters here and there in trying to sustain the momentum that impels it, but those moments are few; in all, “La La Land” shows Chazelle to be one of the most promising directors working today. I am intensely curious to see what he will do next (something I couldn’t say after “Whiplash,” though it, too, was impressive). My hope is that he will continue on the path of sophisticated filmmaking. For it shows that, despite all our complaints about contemporary American cinema, it’s still capable of bursting into life that’s filled with song and dance, whether at the concrete or the symbolic level.