“We think too much and feel too little,” Charlie Chaplin observed in his prescient anti-fascist 1940 classic The Great Dictator. La La Land, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s luminous musical love story, thinks and feels.
But as lovers of musicals know, thinking and feeling can only take you so far. When thought and emotion dead-end for La La Land’s pair of lovers, played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, they can’t help but burst out in song, dance—hell, they even fly. Who knows what movie audiences—who don’t bat an eyelash when superheroes defy gravity, time, space and logic—are going to make of that, especially since La La Land is the first full-on movie musical in eons that isn’t based on a pre-sold Broadway hit? But the movie, Chazelle’s first since the terrific Whiplash, lays down the unapologetic “It’s a musical–take it or leave it!” gauntlet from the get-go in an astonishing sequence set during an L.A. traffic jam. Every character as far as the eye can see seems to be en route to an audition, a new gig, the chance to ride the Big Wave. Most are driving solo and no one’s getting anywhere fast. What else is there to do but shake off their foul moods, jump out of their cars and sing, somersault, do handsprings and dance in a joyous ode to dreamers and seekers?
If “Another Day of Sun” sends certain audience members racing to the exit, we get it, but that’s on them. For the rest of us, La La Land turns out to be the nerviest, most glorious and transporting movie experience of the year.
The layup is deceptively simple. Talented pianist and jazz purist Sebastian, slyly played by Gosling, tickles the ivories at restaurant and bars, playing to diners who couldn’t care less. Now and then, he sneaks in jazz riffs that piss off a manager played by Whiplash scene-grabber J.K. Simmons. Stone, in her peak performance so far, plays Mia, a lover of old-school movies and a perpetually struggling actress “just waiting to be found.“ Between auditions, she works in a café at Warner Bros., a studio undoubtedly chosen by the Chazelle because that’s where they shot Casablanca and those mind-bending Busby Berkeley-directed musical numbers. (Incidentally, Gosling and Warner Bros. began developing a Berkeley biomovie two years ago; if the Movie Musical Gods are listening, Chazelle should direct.) Mia and Sebastian meet cute but, in the tradition of musicals dating back to the days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, their connection is prickly and antagonistic—mostly due to Sebastian. In fact, Gosling’s frustrated character moonlights in a terrible ‘80s cover band and when Mia discovers his shame at a pool party, he shows himself as rude, defensive and self-sabotaging.
In a movie that deliberately dips into images, moods, lighting schemes and character arcs from It’s Always Fair Weather, Vertigo, West Side Story and The Young Girls of Rochefort, Gosling’s character is like a second cousin to Robert De Niro’s nearly insufferable sax player in the Scorsese-directed musical New York, New York. Luckily, Gosling is more roguish and likeable than De Niro. The complicated, sometimes painful multi-year love affair and the diverging career paths of his and Stone’s characters become the focus of the film—and often its song and dance sequences. One of them, in which wide-eyed Stone and sardonic Gosling dance between street lamps in the Hollywood Hills with a spectacular sunset-splashed skyline behind them–shades of Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain and Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s sublime "Dancing in the Dark” sequence from The Band Wagon—shows that while neither Stone nor Gosling are trained dancers, they move with a natural grace, cool and charm.
They’re so in tune with Chazelle, an instinctively musical director, and their chemistry is do damn palpable that they create a contact high. The blissed-out romantic mood is enhanced by cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle), who has shot much of La La Land on some of Southern California’s most photogenic old timey locations–Griffith Observatory, Angel’s Flight, the Rialto Theater–almost always with a magic-hour patina. The all-original songs by Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are jazzy and instantly likable. One of them, Gosling’s bluesy Chet Baker-esque take on “City of Stars,” is a newly minted classic and a probable Oscar nominee.
The movie isn’t unalloyed joy. It runs too long, by maybe 10 minutes, and it gets repetitive as things move along. But so much of it is exhilarating, and its last 15 minutes are full of stunningly stylized, feet-off-the-ground stuff; criticizing it feels like banishing an adorable puppy in the rain. It isn’t merely that Chazelle has made a film with eye-popping color and bold lighting, fantastical sets and characters showing their souls in movement and rhyme. He’s made it feel revolutionary and brand new, even when it’s as old as the hills. Hollywood created some of its boldest, most enduring musicals during the bleakest hours of the Great Depression in the ‘30s and during World War II. As darkness, hate and political divisions cast ominous shadows over America, La La Land feels like the right movie at just the right time.