by Michael Henley
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is many wonderful things, but at its heart it’s a persistent balancing act between dozens of elements that should—by definition—cancel each other out. It’s a whirlwind Hollywood showbiz musical and a love story with a real ring of truth. It’s an ode to dreams both realized and dashed. It’s a love letter to old traditions and a full-bodied embracing of the new-fashioned. It’s a visual delight and an actors’ showcase. It’s a collection of classic movie references (among those cited are Singin’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) but it’s never ever a bloodless pastiche. It’s a tribute to the plight of Los Angeles underdogs made by very successful people, yet it’s never condescending or insincere. It has flights of fancy and true stakes. It’s a fantasy and a reality. It’s a comedy and a drama. It’s bitter and it’s sweet. It’s an effortless charmer and a staggering labor of love. Plenty of these things have been combined before, but not all of them at once, and even taking them individually it’s been ages and ages since we’ve seen this done so well.
What we get here is both a glorious entertainment and the absolute best film of the year. Yes, this movie remembers when films could be both of those things—all of these things, everything it wants to be—at once. In an era where Hollywood movies often don’t achieve their small goals, and at the tail end of a torturous year (both in pop culture and…elsewhere), La La Land isn’t just therapeutic and it isn’t just exhilarating; to watch it continually top itself right until the closing credits feels damn near liberating.
And it’s especially satisfying if you’re a fan of the talent. Of course I mean Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, who have been together in movies twice before (Crazy Stupid Love, Gangster Squad). They have terrific chemistry. But finally they’re in a movie that knows how good they are, and where all the different pieces work, and that confidence in the material envelops them. It elevates them. They master their dance numbers with ease, which is a hell of a thing to do because they’re some of the most playful and intricate things you’ll see on a movie screen this year. Can they sing? They sing well enough, especially when they sing in moments of such startling directness. And then they do something rather remarkable, which is sell the human beings underneath the flash and sizzle.
But this is a tour de force behind the camera as well. If there ever was a calling card movie, this is it. You know what a calling card movie is, even though it’s a term I just made up. Every once in a while, a filmmaker cashes in on a modestly-made super-success and is allowed to make something that shows his full talent in bloom. And for Chazelle (he made a 2014 best picture nominee, the intense music drama Whiplash), this is his moment. These calling card projects are absolutely always huge gambles, but when you’ve got the goods like Chazelle does, you risk big and you win big.
Not that La La Land is a million miles removed from Whiplash. Not really. True enough that Whiplash was dark and angry and obsessed. Meanwhile, La La Land is bouncier, funnier and its characters are probably healthier. Probably. But both movies adore the sheer joy of performance, and both movies sympathize with the torturous sacrifices artists put themselves through for that joy. Whiplash’s hero was a man so dedicated to the dual pains and pleasures of jazz music (and impressing his monstrous teacher) that he opened up an infinitely dark future for himself. In La La Land, Gosling plays a spiritual brother to Teller’s character: a jazz bro named Sebastian who has to make his own choices about balancing romance and career.
The key difference in the story here is that Chazelle has given us a two-hander this time: Whiplash’s female perspective was relegated to a single scene where Teller broke up with Melissa Benoist to focus on his jazz (that’s how you know the kid was crazed—he dumped Supergirl). In La La Land, Stone, as an aspiring actress named Mia, has her own autonomy, her own fire and her own dreams, and the wellspring of the story’s poignancy is the intersection for both halves of this couple between settling, success, and selling out.
But Chazelle remains Chazelle, and the same DNA runs through his films. Call La La Land a B-side to Whiplash, if you will. It counters the psychotic frenzy of the previous film’s climax (which was a symphony for orchestra and editor) with a single-take opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” in which the participants of a traffic jam on the 105 take a break from their cars and strut their stuff, exuberantly. It’s actually not a single-take, exactly, but one constructed out of digital trickery. No matter; as the camera careens through the lanes the spirit and freedom on this warm sunny day is exhilarating; all due credit goes not just to Chazelle’s bravado and his camera operators’ fleet feet but also to the work of his choreographer, Mandy Moore (no, not that Mandy Moore). It’s ultimately a perfect way to lead into the film’s title card, to which there is a perfect punchline: another, blunter title card that shouts “WINTER.” (By contrast, the movie’s Tarantino-esque opening promise of being “Shot in CinemaScope!” is maybe a bit too cute.) Plenty of the musicals the past few years have been almost embarrassed of that label. This one knows no fear.
And that’s just a curtain-raiser. There are other numbers, too, including “Someone in the Crowd,” which is about Mia and her flatmates getting ready for a trendy vapid Hollywood party, and it’s a peerless three or four minutes of story-driven musical comedy. But things deepen when Mia, by chance, hears Sebastian plucking a few mournful notes at a piano at an after-hours club. He’s fired on the spot (the manager, played by Chazelle’s good luck charm J.J. Simmons, wants Christmas carols, not noodling) and Mia, struck by his music, gives him a compliment to which he responds by brushing by her angrily—not your typical meet cute.
The two bump into each other again at a house party a few months later, where she cheekily gets his full attention this time. Their ensuing twilight courting dance, “A Lovely Night,” is as footloose and frisky tap number, in light Astaire-and-Rogers style (though Stone has the good sense to change from heels to flats as if sensing the moment is coming—a nicely knowing touch). Their first date—to see Rebel Without a Cause at a revival house—has a change of venue when the film breaks: they visit instead an actual Rebel location in Griffith Observatory, and soon a stroll through the planetarium becomes a dance through the stars themselves, in one of the most romantic moments I’ve maybe ever seen in a movie, full stop.
Soon Mia and Sebastian are together and sharing their dreams. She doesn’t just want to act, but to write her own one-woman play, and he, a musician, wants to open a jazz club. She, emboldened by Sebastian, makes a go for it—but runs into heartbreak on all fronts (and auditions aren’t going much better). Meanwhile, Sebastian, in an effort to make some money, lends his talents to a R&B/jazz fusion band led by John Legend, and although their music is actually pretty good, it’s not what he wants to do, and it keeps him on the road a lot. In plenty of showbiz movies, pure separation builds simple-minded resentment, but here it’s more complicated than that, and it’s more of an imperfect melding of ideals. If Mia is taking big risks and Sebastian is playing it safe, how supportive can you really say he’s being? How good a match are they?
The outlines are pretty typical; it’s the moments that are exquisite. I like how Chazelle dials down the presence of the musical numbers during the second act for more observational relationship scenes, without feeling like something’s been dropped. And Chazelle and his cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, aren’t afraid to make a gorgeous movie that uses vivid color (the observatory sequence is worth the price of admission just in that regard), but notice how a pivotal dinner scene between Mia and Sebastian (which starts well enough but inexorably descends into despond) uses those colors: an influx of green that is at first glance luminous, but gradually feels more sickly and claustrophobic the longer it lasts. And note the very precise way Chazelle writes and directs that scene, with sharp dialogue that doesn’t make a single misstep, while letting his actors each stew while in confined single closeups that cunningly last just long enough to make us uncomfortable.
Oh, and then there’s the actual performances of Stone and Gosling, which are heartbreaking and true. If one of the pleasures of the movies is to watch people fall in love, it’s a pleasure often denied us because too often we see stars yoked to inane plots, unbelievable chemistry, stupid dialogue, or what have you. Here everything feels right, throughout, even when it’s fanciful, because it never becomes arch or too stylized, and because Gosling and Stone keep their emotions right where they need them. Even the most outlandish of the set pieces have a beating heart to them, and that dinner scene is one of the quietest and most observant portrayals of a young couple navigating a believably rocky relationship since Before Midnight.
There are other wonderments in La La Land—loads of them. But this is a review, not a catalog, so let’s just remark that the movie’s climactic moment ends with a perfect collision between the movie’s senses of fantasy and reality. Actually, it happens twice. Once with a pitch-perfect solo number by Stone (which is undoubtedly soon to be heard in female summer stage auditions countrywide). The second time is with a closing ten minute sequence that is sweeping and delicate and funny and awe-inspiring and sad and lovely and just haunting. It’s everything great about this movie all at once, and it’s such a wonderful brushstroke on the two characters, especially Gosling’s: the film closes on a moment that lends such perspective on Sebastian (who, at times, comes across as romantic but slightly-douchey jazz bro) that it re-contextualizes the entire performance. I’m not saying you have to be touched by the movie’s closing moments. Just that if you get through them without a tear or two, then you’re stronger than I.
To make a movie like La La Land in this timid age is to summon the potential for great folly. Musicals are dead, says the common knowledge, and the ones we do get every once in a while are often dreary and serious, and they’re often Broadway hits that have been vetted and have a built-in fanbase. And movies are having a tough time with originality these days anyway. But La La Land is a true blue original, and a movie musical made with the spirit of Old Hollywood, in which corporations didn’t make classics, filmmakers did, and they did it with distinct vision and star power. Dedication, swagger, grace, ambition and brio. The way things used to be, where people rolled up their sleeves and said let’s make a movie! and then they did. Chazelle and his team made one hell of a movie here; an instant classic, and the “c” word isn’t one I throw around lightly. It’s the kind of movie you can bring up the next time someone says “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”
Hogwash. Because every once in a while, if you’re really lucky, they actually—no foolin’—do.
La La Land is currently playing in select theaters. It opens everywhere Christmas Day.