La La Land, directed by Damien Chazelle, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, Summit Entertainment
If this isn’t the damndest thing. La La Land is a traditional musical with an original score, in which the characters break into song just because.
And I’m totally on board with that.
There’s no hint of Broadway here. Writer-director Damien Chazelle is heavily under the sway of French director Jacques Demy and Demy’s big 1960s musicals, which in turn were inspired by the great golden-age Hollywood musical romances. This remove sets up an odd, but not disqualifying distance from the material. I can’t help thinking that Chazelle thought he was making a “musical.” Since most contemporary moviegoers wouldn’t know Jacques Demy from Demi Moore, I wonder how this almost-endearing distance that runs through the film registers with them.
The tone may be foreign, but the plot is all-American. Two earnest kids trying to make it in show biz meet cute (on the freeway), meet cute again (in a restaurant), fall in love, fall out of love and are reunited for a big emotional finale. Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian is a jazz purist who wants to play traditional music in his own club; Emma Stone’s Mia is an aspiring actress and playwright trying to remain optimistic in the face of soul-crushing rejection. He plays in piano bars and she’s a barista on the Warner Bros. lot. The encourage each other’s dreams, but we know how love can suffer in the sunbaked land of endless ambition.
Gosling’s a passable singer and Stone a good deal better than that, but the real magic in their pairing is in the dancing. They’re graceful and convey the idea that they’re falling in love with every movement.
The very Michel Legrand-ish score is by Justin Hurwitz, and while a couple of songs are forgettable, a couple more are lovely. At times it’s hard to tell if Chazelle is just a musical purist trying to make the audience feel bad for liking pop music, but the hell with him: pop jazz was good enough for Legrand and Demy, it’s sure as hell good enough for me.
One thing you can say with certainty about Chazelle: The guy knows how to end a movie. Whiplash climaxed with a dazzling, if vicious, jazz battle between a determined drummer and a predatory conductor. If you haven’t seen it, that probably sounds ridiculous; it isn’t. In La La Land, after 90-plus minutes of filmmaking under the sway of Jacques Demy, Chazelle goes full 1950s M-G-M with a virtuosic fantasy number of the kind Vincente Minnelli concocted for The Band Wagon and Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen did for Singin’ in the Rain. It’s seamless, and it’s a delightful way to end the film without breaking with La La’s fundamentally rueful view of “Hollywood.”
It’s also the first moment in the film when the quotes get removed from the idea of making a “musical,” and Chazelle stops letting the all his thinking show on screen. And it’s just in time.