'La La Land' lives up to the hype

ScreenerBlog

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I came to the Toronto International Film Festival having already seen some of its standout titles: Loving, Denial, Christine, Paterson, The Birth of a Nation and Manchester by the Sea among them. But one very buzzy film hadn’t yet surfaced back in New York: La La Land, the musical that wowed audiences just recently in Venice and Telluride. And so I joined the eager crowd at the Princess of Wales Theatre press screening on Monday, and it would be safe to say that most of us left the theatre feeling giddy about what we just saw. FJI Telluride correspondent Tomris Laffly has already raved about the movie here, but I can’t resist adding my own superlatives.

Whiplash director Damien Chazelle has created a concoction that is both a salute to the golden age of movie musicals (and its French variations by Jacques Demy) and something utterly modern. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, who had so much chemistry in Crazy, Stupid, Love, play a couple who meet ugly on a Los Angeles freeway (following a jaw-dropping one-take opening number set in the heart of a massive traffic jam), but are destined to fall in love. She’s Mia, an aspiring actress from Boulder City, Nevada who works as a barista at a Hollywood studio; he’s Sebastian, a gifted jazz pianist who gets fired for sneaking his own compositions into his boring supper-club gig. They reconnect at a party where Sebastian is manning keyboards for an ’80s cover band (“Take on Me,” “I Ran”), and an impromptu dance at sunset while searching for her car sparks a relationship. But obstacles (career opportunities, missed connections) keep getting in the way.

Chazelle’s exhilarating film encompasses both surreal flights of fantasy and a solidly grounded study of the difficulties of maintaining even the most heartfelt relationship when real-life problems intervene. Along with that opening traffic jam, many of the sequences are choreographed in remarkable lengthy single takes, counterpointed by the virtuosic cutting that brought Whiplash editor Tom Cross an Oscar. Stone and Gosling prove to be charming singers and dancers, and Gosling’s piano chops are breathtaking; meanwhile, Stone gets a moving solo number near the end that makes her an instant Oscar frontrunner. The dramatic icing on the cake of this hardly lightweight musical: an extended fight between the leads, shot in alternating close-ups, that will rend your heart.

The movie runs over two hours, but the minutes fly by. I can’t imagine a 2016 release that could be more inventive, more romantic, or more imbued with joy.