Film Review: La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s musical love letter to Los Angeles manages to be old-fashioned and newfangled at the same time, to thrilling effect.
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The musical genre is alive and well once again, thanks in large part to the TV series “Glee,” the Pitch Perfect movies, the recent spate of live TV revivals of the likes of Grease and The Sound of Music, and the short-form video extravaganzas by pop stars like Beyoncé, Rihanna and Katy Perry. But there’s still a degree of risk in a project like La La Land, with its decidedly retro callback to the heyday of the MGM musical and the ’60s divertissements of the French director Jacques Demy. How much this daring film will be embraced by a young generation remains an open question, but I suspect its stylistic audaciousness, irresistible lead performances by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and buoyant spirit will generate considerable box-office power.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s third feature (following his Oscar-nominated Whiplash) is old-fashioned, yes, but also modern in the way it translates the inventiveness of those classic musicals for the 21st century. It presents its mission statement from the opening seconds, the start of a jaw-dropping, single-take production number set in a traffic jam on a ramp above a Los Angeles freeway. As frustrated drivers leave their cars and dance and leap about and join in an original song called “Another Day of Sun,” we eventually focus in on our two leads: Mia (Stone), a struggling actress rehearsing lines for an audition, and Seb (Gosling), a frustrated jazz pianist. Their brief “meet cute,” flipping the bird at each other, is something anyone stuck in traffic can relate to.

The pair are destined to meet again: She finds herself drawn to the club where Seb is performing (and storms past her before she can break the ice). Later, she spots him at a party where he’s paying the bills as a member of a cheesy ’80s cover band; scathing banter ensues, but when they meet again outside the party, it leads to a charming dance number (shot in the “magic hour” before sunset) that evokes the romantic Central Park pas de deux of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon. The love story has begun.

But complications quickly arise. Seb, a jazz purist, succumbs to the temptation of a steady and lucrative gig and takes a job playing synthesizers and keyboards with a successful jazz-pop band led by Keith (music star John Legend). The gig often takes him away from L.A. and Mia, who’s rehearsing an autobiographical one-woman show for a small playhouse. Both as artists and lovers, their fragile relationship become strained, culminating in a ferocious kitchen-table argument that’s a tour de force for the two stars. (Chazelle’s film is permeated with moments like this, like Mia’s demoralizing auditions, that ground its fantasy world in clear-eyed reality.)

Speaking of tour de forces, Gosling, not a trained pianist, fully convinces you he’s been a virtuoso at the keyboards for years—he’s that good. And Stone gets her Oscar-bait moment with a riveting ballad about the perils of the acting life, “The Fools Who Dream,” also done in one powerful take.

Chazelle is 31, and La La Land brims over with youthful energy and invention. It moves from one delightful set-piece to the next (including one at the Griffith Observatory in which the leads take flight), capped by a rueful “What could have been” alternate-reality montage. Chazelle’s love for Los Angeles is also palpable: New York has had its movie close-up many times, but few films have made L.A. looks so magical and alluring. Come Oscar time, L.A. may be inclined to show just as much love to Chazelle.

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