Classical cinema sensibilities collide with 21st century realities in Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land.” The “Whiplash” filmmaker follows up that highly acclaimed effort with its tonal opposite, a breezy, colorful romance wrapped in original songs and musical numbers.
While something feels contradictory about combining a contemporary independent comedy with an old Hollywood movie musical, Chazelle blends the two with visual ingenuity and strives for the utmost artistic integrity. The result is a wholly unique albeit strangely familiar moviegoing experience.
The 31-year-old Chazelle has made a couple things clear in his short but noteworthy career thus far: he really loves movie musicals and he really really loves jazz. Jazz music has played an integral role in all three of his features, and two of his films have featured original song performances. “La La Land” follows aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) who keeps having fated encounters with jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) until their Hollywood-based romance blooms and they challenge each other to pursue their dreams in new ways.
The film goes heavy on the music early on, as if to announce itself as a full on musical. It opens with a rousing number during gridlock traffic on the LA freeway (“Another Day of Sun”) intended to look like a single take full of sweeping camera movements, bright colors and diverse faces. Not long after, we see Mia musically preparing for a night out with her roommates (“Someone in the Crowd”) in stereotypical fashion, a number that ends in a choreographed pool party sequence. Yet these are two of the five original songs in the entire film. In other words, Chazelle didn’t start his film that way just to be cute.
Once Mia and Sebastian finally connect on a sunset stroll that results in tap-dancing (“A Lovely Night”), the musical numbers slow down and what few new songs remain are of the soul-searching, introspective variety. Chazelle organizes the film in seasons, and the tone changes as we go from winter to spring to summer to fall. So while he begins the film in a showy way, creating an idyllic portrait of Hollywood and romance, the story slowly accumulates more depth and we see the characters, their relationship and their struggles more clearly.
Stone and Gosling’s on-screen chemistry has already been proven twice before (“Crazy Stupid Love,” “Gangster Squad”) and that makes Chazelle’s job much easier. Having movie musical chemistry and screen presence is a whole other beast, however, and in this regard, Stone really steals the show. Gosling looks unbelievably sharp and he clearly devoted a lot of time to his piano skills in preparation for his role, but he’s more cool than charming, almost too cool. Perhaps that’s by design, but Stone has the singing starlet aura. She’s effortless to watch and love, qualities that Gosling has but not to the same degree and not in a way that’s utterly transporting.
Both actors, however, provide exactly what “La La Land” needs in terms of being a contemporary comedy. Both have excellent comedic credentials and dramatic chops; their performances embody the fine line between playful humor and emotional honesty that reflects how Millennials see themselves in the world, and lest we forget amidst all the old-timey flair in this film that Chazelle brings a Millennial perspective to the director’s chair.
Part of that perspective is that movies like these — especially musicals — are far too rosy. They create unrealistic expectations; those of us who grew up with this art and internalized its fantasies as truths or ideal to strive for have felt burned. This is a particularly common theme among contemporary films and TV shows, but Chazelle is really the first to address it from a place of deep love and intimate knowledge of the genre. To satirize and provide effective commentary on a genre, you kinda need to master it in its most classical form, and Chazelle demonstrates impeccable skill in this regard.
We already knew from “Whiplash” that Chazelle could film people playing music in an electrifying way (he’s sure to make the world’s best music documentary someday), but the way he’s able to break out of the two-dimensional viewpoint that most musical directors (even movie musical directors) fall prey to and craft visually compelling musical numbers warrants the awards attention he’s already getting for this film.
“La La Land” isn’t emotionally sweeping like most people want from a romantic musical, but its honest message and craftsmanship elevate it from an interesting experiment of blending old school with new school into a powerful reminder of what it really means to love and what it really means to dream big.
“La La Land”
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling