Movie review: La La Land
This musical love letter to the movie business, jazz and romance is an intoxicating throwback to the days of dancing among the stars and singing your heart out in the hopes of making it
La La Land
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Running time: 128 minutes
By Jay Stone
(Published January 3, 2017)
The opening scene of Damien Chazelle’s modern-retro musical La La Land is a bravura one-shot wonder that sums up its themes, characters and wistful melodies, all of them presented in an enveloping Cinemascope that spreads — like the movie itself — from an old-fashioned square format into a wide-screen wonder big enough to encompass an entire world.
The scene: a monumental line of cars stuck on a Los Angeles freeway, like something out of Godard’s Weekend but with the cannibalism taking on a more artistic bent. The honking horns slowly arrange themselves into a tune. The drivers begin to leap from their cars, energetic actors and dancers who make up this community of L.A. commuters, and sing a lively and cynical number called Another Day of Sun, about how they’ve left their small towns seeking fame in the movies. It’s a gridlock of hope.
Among them is Mia (Emma Stone), sitting in her Prius and seemingly talking on her cell phone until we realize that she’s rehearsing lines for an upcoming audition for a project that has been described as “Dangerous Minds meets the O.C.” Mia works as a barista on the Warner Brothers lot — right across the street from the balcony where Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman heard the Nazi cannons in the flashback scene in Casablanca — but what she really wants to do is Act.
In the car behind her, an old convertible that stands as a symbol of his stubborn sensibilities, is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a piano player who longs to preserve the heritage of jazz — he owns a piano stool once sat on by Hoagy Carmichael — but earns his money playing Christmas carols in a supper club where he’s not allowed to play jazz. Naturally, then, he plays jazz, and the tune he’s writing becomes, like the title song in Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, the aural landscape of La La Land.
Sebastian swings his car around Mia’s and hits the horn. She gives him the finger. Love is in bloom.
The rest of La La Land is the story of two ambitious young people with familiar dreams of art and fame, and how they meet and fall in love, and what happens to them. It’s an old story told in an old-new way, with song (the score by Justin Hurwitz is thin but haunting) and dance (the choreography is disappointing; one imagines a Broadway version of this material exploding into a lot of thrilling tap.) The result is an intoxicating blend of movie magic and melancholy romance, a love story to musicals as much as it is a tale of struggles and yearning. It may not be the best movie of the year — Manchester by the Sea is richer — but it’s my favourite.
La La Land was written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who made a low-budget new-wave jazz musical called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and then a dangerous jazz film called Whiplash (J.K. Simmons, the dark music teacher of that movie, has a small role in La La Land as a stubbornly middle-brow nightclub owner.) Chazelle has immersed himself in the form: you see echoes of An American in Paris, Singing in the Rain and, most obviously, Rebel Without A Cause in a swoony scene where Mia and Sebastian visit the Griffin Observatory in Los Angeles and dance through the stars of its planetarium.
It’s a scene that stretches Chazelle’s sensibilities. La La Land is more at home in its everyday enchantment of Mia and Sebastian standing high in the Hollywood hills — they’ve just been at a party at a home where gorgeous men and women dive in the pool, often fully dressed — and dance a modest number above the twinkling lights of the vast city.
With her astonishingly large eyes, Stone (Birdman) is a compelling performer, and her Mia is such a sensitive and talented young hopeful that her reliable disappointments have a special sting. Near the end of the film — after a couple of auditions that are at once heartbreaking and hilarious — she sings a song called Here’s To The Fools Who Dream with a delicate bravery that is immensely touching. This is the song you will be humming as you leave the theatre.
Gosling, who dresses in tight shirts with the sleeves rolled up, cool ties and saddle shoes, is well cast as the difficult loner jazz-lover, but his very difficulty distances him from the film’s nostalgic heart. He sings only passably well, and his dancing is rote, but he turns out to be an astonishingly adept piano player and an accomplished smart-ass.
La La Land takes place across four seasons of a year, with a memorable coda at the end: a long what-if sequence that shows us an alternative movie, one that might have happened, told on fantasy sets and with scratchy faux home movies. It’s breathtaking, both cinematically and emotionally; easily the match of anything in The Artist (2011), the similarly fond homage that won the Oscar for best movie. Between them, they represent a new kind of movie musical: self-aware, but with its roots in the past, and not ashamed to show them. Here’s to the fools who dream.
THE EX-PRESS, January 3, 3017
– 30 –