They Don't Make 'em Like 'La La Land', Anymore
Peppy, smart, and almost intolerably romantic, this is the finest movie musical since John Carney's Once.
It starts joyously, on a car-choked freeway, and ends in Hollywood, with a kind of heartbreak. In between those moments, Damien Chazelle's La La Land conjures up the Golden Era of musicals. Fortunately, it doesn’t feel constricted by the rules of those old studio vehicles, but instead, stretches their possibilities. Chazelle uses the formula as a springboard for a fresh take on movie romance. Rather than offering a retro exercise, like The Artist, La La Land is its own story, about a guy and a gal trying to make it in the City of Angels.
As Mia, the big-eyed and big-hearted girl from Nowheresville, Nevada, now working in a movie lot coffee shop and going on auditions, Emma Stone plays the same spunky gamine that she’s been specializing in for years now, plus singing and dancing. Similarly, Ryan Gosling’s take on Sebastian, the rebellious jazz pianist, is a close relative to the arrogant yet charming types he’s played in movies from Crazy, Stupid, Love to The Nice Guys.
Sebastian and Mia don't quite meet cute in La La Land's first scene. Dozens of other drivers in the traffic jam exit their cars to sing “Another Day of Sun", rhapsodizing about the glories of life in Southern California as they dance, dance, dance. The camera cranes through and over the stalled vehicles with exquisite Jacques Demy-inspired choreography, hitting unexpected peaks, such as when the back of a delivery van is opened to reveal a band just waiting to jump into the number, before craning up to see the line of cars and dancers seemingly stretching off into forever. Mia and Sebastian’s roles here are less exuberant: the camera catches them in their cars, late and distracted and not moving. Irritated when he finds himself stuck behind her, Sebastian zips past and Mia flips him off.
As we come to know these two, we know they'll get together. Both are dreamers in the classic cinematic sense, but they take different routes to success. Mia is the plucky striver, going to one audition after the other, taking rejection like a sock to the chin. Sebastian’s tenacious insistence on nothing but traditional jazz hurts not only his shot at steady employment (offered by John Legend as Keith, a deadpan cool R&B-jazz fusion cat), but also his ambition to open his own nightclub. While it would have been nice if the film had reversed the usual gender split and made Mia the tortured creative soul and Sebastian the insecure performer, Stone and Gosling play their parts as though there isn’t a cliché in sight.
We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.
We can't survive without your support.
At the same time, Chazelle navigates the ebb and flow of Mia and Sebastian’s relationship using some standard rom-com tropes, both heartfelt and tricked out in cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s exhilarating Pop colors. But it’s the song-and-dance numbers that launch the film into a realm of its own. Justin Hurwitz’s swooningly sweeping score, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s thoughtfully heartsick lyrics, and Mandy Moore’s flighty choreography, are all visibly influenced by American postwar musicals. We see nods to Singin’ in the Rain in ways both specific (Sebastian hops onto a lamppost when he gets carried away by the song) and general (a knowing and industry-attuned tension between authenticity and success). But between yearning numbers like “Someone in the Crowd” and the surprisingly catchy recurring tune “City of Stars”, the rhythms and emotional cadences are La La Land's own.
At first glance, none of this seems like natural material for Chazelle. Remember, he was last spotted with Whiplash. There, J.K. Simmons’ sadist drill instructor of a music teacher grinds Miles Teller through multiple circles of bloody-fingered hell. But underneath that film’s glinting surface and punishing theatrics, there was an undercurrent that raised many of the same questions that roil through La La Land. Namely, what price perfection and authenticity?
A delight in just about every way, La La Land deserves the praise being hurled its way. Hopefully, though, it won’t end up on Broadway as so many other recent music-centered films. There’s stardust here, but it has more to do with the twinkle in Stone’s eyes and the bashfulness of Gosling’s downward grin than the raw material of Hurwitz’s occasionally so-so compositions. It would be best for La La Land to stay in its lane and be considered no more than what it is.
We always hear that they don’t make ‘em like they used to. That's true. But in considering Chazelle’s ingenious creation, we can see too that they never really did make ‘em like this to begin with. And maybe never will again.
Editor's note: see PopMatters' interview with director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz here.