La La Land December 19, 2016
Damien Chazelle believes that Hollywood is as much a boulevard of broken dreams as it is a buoyant Tinsel Town in which everything proves to be affectionately Technicolor if you look hard enough. Those intertwining beliefs give weight to his daydreams in the winning modern-day musical La La Land. A proponent of both the idealistic Hollywood Golden Age and the darker romanticism of the latter-day musical, he finds a wispy balance between old school tribute and game-changing revolution and ends up with something a little Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and a little All That Jazz (1979).
Which ensures tonal shakiness. But like all movies which try to connect the fantasy of breaking out into song when words can hardly profess your true emotional state and the reality that life is more shit-throwing than rose-colored, La La Land is a heady dose of epic enterprise matched in charm. Immediately clear is that it is among 2016’s better films.
The movie, made more charismatic because of its inspired casting, stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as a pair of struggling Hollywood amateurs brought together by circumstances more cinematically quaint than Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron’s first meeting in An American in Paris (1951). He, a traditionalist pianist named Sebastian, fantasizes about bringing jazz back to the masses and opening a club Morris Levy’d be proud of. She, an aspiring actress named Mia, currently works at a coffee shop on the fringes of a production studio but yearns to be the Ingrid Bergman of the new millennium. After two abrupt encounters that find Sebastian in the grips of frustration, the twosome eventually finds common ground at a party characterized by the rubbing of elbows of big wigs and upstarts.
For its next two hours does La La Land follow their romance with a dedication which rings as hopelessly tender, supplely theatrical, and delicately bittersweet. Like Judy Garland and James Mason’s relationship in A Star Is Born (1954) — though octaves less stormy — the film is unmoving in its conclusion that the hard-to-reach finish line that is professional success isn’t much a personal life’s wingman. To struggle together isn’t always synonymous with staying together. And yet there’s a gorgeous stir in that sentiment which gives La La Land the chutzpah necessary to corroborate that it’s lyrical, not just romantic zing. Its characters grow together, perfect themselves together — they’re so much more than the frequently stock characters of the musical.
La La Land is, of course, likely to appeal to the old souls who feel a strange sensation of tranquility when in the presence of Louis B. Mayer’s star factory and all its prim products. Quickly clear to us is that Sebastian and Mia are the sort who have to fight for years to become hot commodities. But only later, in the film’s climactic scene (which, in addition to being one of the best movie moments of the decade, finds an auditioning Mia singing of the melancholies which come along with being a hopeless dreamer), are we reminded of all the individuals who lusted after seeing their name in lights but never found out what it was like to get their big break.
That fantasist cum fatalist attitude is what gets Chazelle far. Though he’s devout in his homages to the musical’s most triumphant eras (with the opening credits preceded by the CinemaScope logo, with the photography reminiscent of the warmth of 1961’s West Side Story, and with the final few moments throwing in glimpses of dreamworlds of 1953’s The Band Wagon’s quality), never does he lose sight of the woes which plague an idealist in a world which doesn’t much care if you make it or if you don’t. When not ensnared with the technical mastery of its musical sequences — the flamboyant “Someone’s In the Crowd” is the 2016 equivalent of Singin’ in the Rain’s iconic “Good Morning” routine, and the gravity-toying, star-bound slow dance (set in the all-important planetarium of 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause) is an unforgettable sight — ample time is committed to digging claws into the characters’ neuroses.
The succession of audition scenes on the part of Stone is enough to argue for the conviction that she’s among the best actresses of her generation. But better yet are the sequences which challenge the latter and Gosling’s easygoing rapport. It’s reliably endearing to watch them make small talk, but La La Land is at its most magnificent when they’re at odds with what they want professionally and what they want personally, the world working against them as their respective dreams clash with the dreams of the other. Stone is Oscar-worthy as a woman at war with the painful cravings to become America’s next sweetheart and the increasing plummets in self-confidence due to her seemingly incessant journey of bad auditions. Gosling is her perfect match — the Astaire to her Rogers — as the musical zealot who would rather die with his ambitions deep in his belly than give up on them. Here they develop a relationship of three-dimensional impact; even when their courtship faces potential ruin we still find ourselves rooting for their success as a pair.
They’re the kind of persona-driven stars welcome in our disenchanted times. And Chazelle, hot off 2014’s fast and furious Whiplash, is a talent in full command of his artistic breadth. He’s an auteur able to connect his heart to the lens with the clarity of a young Scorsese, turning relative inexperience to youthful acuity which reeks of frenetic energy and a remarkably personal style. La La Land’s superlative conjoining of the old and the new, complemented by the joys of fantastical musical tropes, establishes it as a modern classic. That a modern classic can take on the form of the cinema’s most dated genre is the biggest indicator of the way its zeal overtakes you. A-