Sometimes you don’t know what you need until you get it. And the world — as well as cinema, history, art, nostalgia, sincerity, joy, music, love and creativity — needs Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” right now. 2016 needs “La La Land.” A primary colored explosion of pure delight that revels in both the manufactured perfections of studio-era Hollywood musicals and in the imperfections and flubbed lines of real life, and finds eternally charming, often spectacular ways to occupy the largely unmapped territory between the two, the film is a huge risk and an absolute triumph. But it also manages to be intimate, to feel like a secret whispered into your ear, and yours alone. And the secret is that while you’ve been living your life and thinking movie musicals were pretty much irrelevant to it, you’ve actually been inside your own musical the whole time.
That lovely feeling of personal engagement — the kind that transforms your view of the world when you walk out of the theater 128 minutes later — is because Chazelle is not attempting anything so clumsy as a reanimation of a moribund genre. For him, life seems to exist as a musical, it’s only a matter of whether we can hear the music, or notice the moments of synchronicity, of spontaneous choreography. In this way he dispels the fundamental mental block that so many of us have when it comes to this genre — that awkward transition from talking to singing, the moment where we leave the realm of the plausible and quantum-leap onto a different, more fantastical plane. Here even the moments of reality are infused with magic, and the moments of magic are tinctured with the real.
It helps a great deal, of course, that those transitions from real to unreal are smoothed by the seamless playing from a wonderful central couple. We’ve seen Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone fall in love onscreen before, but Chazelle sets up a wholly fresh dynamic whereby you can see yourself in both of them, while also wanting desperately to watch these two never-more-beautiful stars fall in love with each other, never more beautifully. Gosling’s furious pre-shoot piano training pays off in the simple thrill of freedom you get knowing that the DP Linus Sandgren‘s energetic, restless, modern camera can twist up and around during one of the jazz numbers and it will still be his hands on the keys, not some forced insert. Similarly Stone’s naturally lovely singing voice adapts freely from breathy duet to boisterous big-band number to one unbelievably gorgeous song, which may just be titled “Audition” but has a perfect chorus line about the messes we make, which she sings as though her life depended on it, in an atypically still, steady, unadorned mid-shot. And as a pair, their dances (by choreographer Mandy Moore) are wonderful — just this side of Fred and Ginger perfection, so that even when they float impossibly up into the air and waltz in zero gravity just before their first kiss, there is real life and spontaneity in every moment.
The plot, as much as there is one, is slight, tracking the relationship between jazz pianist and purist jazz fan Seb (Gosling) and aspiring actress, actual barista Mia (Stone), from their first un-cute meets, through them getting together (easy) and staying together (difficult). On one level it’s remarkably low-stakes, and there’s little outright conflict between these two fundamentally lovely and decent people (except for one brilliantly written and performed dinner scene). But onto this slim, timeless and infinitely relatable structure, Chazelle weaves a story that is as replete with ideas and insights as it is with delicious production and costume design (David Wasco and Mary Zohres respectively), and witty, soulful songwriting (from composer Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul).
Indeed, even if it had only lived up to the memory of all its many references it would be something special — Chazelle nods to the likes of “Top Hat,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “An American in Paris,” and more, after all. But this is so much more than an act of homage, despite the love for classic musicals that leaks out all over the screen and affects every aspect of the endlessly inventive production, from painted backdrops and stark lighting cues to iris-in transitions and quite the loveliest “Presented in Cinemascope” opening title ever screened. “La La Land” goes one better than many of its influences (and also addresses the other main issue that so many people find they have with traditional musicals) by being actually about something: creative expression. More than simply a love story, it’s a film about the interplay between sacrifice and compromise in pursuit of your artistic ambitions. Seb wants to open a jazz club, and Mia wants to act, but when Seb’s music career takes off in a compromised direction (appropriately symbolized by his friend Keith, played by John Legend) is he being realistic about wanting to keep jazz alive in whatever form will be popular, or is he selling out the purity of his passion? Or for Mia, how many knock-back auditions and failed one-woman plays will it take before she decides that she simply isn’t good enough, and stops trying?
If there is one way in which Chazelle could be accused of breaking from strictest realism, it’s that both Mia and Seb are rewarded with success for pursuing their ambitions — not something that will necessarily happen to most struggling thespians or unworldly musicians. But then, the story in “La La Land,” is also the story of “La La Land” — this is a risky, ambitious dream project from a relatively untested filmmaker that needed the faith of a lot of people, and various huge strokes of luck and opportunity to get made. It’s a film about bravery that is itself brave — how can we accuse Chazelle of lack of realism when, in the film itself, we have such ample evidence that sometimes, as trite as it sounds, dreams actually do come true.
“La La Land” is a film you simply never want to stop watching. It has wisdom and joy and sadness and such magic, from the evocative power of music to the transportive power of movies. It is a heartfelt lament for the fact that the place where those things meet — the movie musical — all but disappeared from our screens, and a passionately argued, utterly convincing manifesto for its return. It is Ingrid Bergman‘s face, Gene Kelly‘s lamppost and it’s the simple power of a musical motif that can somehow contain every single moment of a love affair, even the ones that didn’t happen. That is the film’s sublime close — we essentially watch Chazelle retell the whole movie in fast motion, like he’s taking a bittersweet bow — and of course a film that alternates so beautifully between swell and swoon would end on a sigh. When it first bursts onto the screen you think this will be a film that will make you long to be in love. But by the end, you are. With “La La Land.” [A]