Damien Chazelle has music in his bones. To call the writer-director’s latest film, La La Land, a musical would certainly not be inaccurate, but the kind of film the term conjures up in the mind is not exactly what La La Land is. Rather, it is a movie thoroughly shot through with music. The film goes on for long stretches without a proper musical number, but the whole thing feels like a song. A love song. La La Land is less a musical than a movie set in a world where musicals happen, where people can spontaneously burst into song at any moment; they don’t always do it, but they could because music is in air.
Where Chazelle’s superb 2014 breakout, Whiplash, was a portrait of the potential toxicity of artistic ambition, La La Land sings it praises, but not without acknowledging the sacrifices it frequently demands. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play a pair of showbiz strivers; Stone is Mia, an actress and playwright suffering the indignities of the audition-and-rejection cycle, Gosling is Seb, a jazz pianist and purist who dreams of opening his own club. The two meet and become acquainted over the course of a number of chance encounters, each catching the other working the demeaning day job they hold (she is a barista, he a keyboardist/keytarist in an 80’s cover band) in order to pursue their loftier ambitions. Mia and Seb come together sweetly and naturally over the course of a series of breathtakingly romantic sequences. They find in each other a person who is absolutely necessary to their artistic pursuits, someone who will egg them on, who will inspire them when inspiration is hard to come by. Alternately, they may be holding each other back; while a breathless new romance may brighten one’s outlook when the career is not going so great, the relationship may be what gets sacrificed in order to achieve greatness. For all its joyousness, and there is a lot here, there is a deep, beautiful, melancholy at the heart of La La Land.
In their third onscreen pairing, following the eminently more forgettable Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, Stone and Gosling are magnetic. Notably, neither is a particularly strong singer (not bad, just not strong), a fact that works to the film’s benefit, lending them a vulnerable quality and supporting the notion that their characters may not become stars. Their dance numbers together are relatively simple and definitively charming, each bring an incredible ease to the scenes.
The entire movie recalls, as it is intended to, classic Hollywood musicals. That observation is more than a little obvious, Chazelle is not subtle about making reference to the films of yesteryear, but much of La La Land’s old-time feeling is derived from the movie’s pronounced lack of cynicism. This earnestness is surprising, given the bleakness of Whiplash, but with La La Land Chazelle proves that he is a filmmaker of great range as well as talent. La La Land may not be the best movie of this prestige season (that distinction goes to Manchester By The Sea), but it is the most rapturous. It’s a film that is undoubtedly destined to become an all-time favorite for thousands of young people drawn to the performing arts. It deserves the distinction.
La La Land
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Music: Justin Hurwitz
Cinematographer: Linus Sandgren
Editor: Tom Cross
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
English / 128 min. / PG-13