Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his breakout drummer thriller Whiplash, La La Land is an obsessively crafted musical that takes everything you love about a Hollywood-set meta-movie like Singin’ in the Rain and adds the brightness and emotional depth necessary for a modern take on music and love. A movie of compromises, eventually lovestruck Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling belt addicting and affecting tunes while their romance and careers tumble and spin with the same deft choreography as their modern tap dances.
The Los Angeles-set film revels in its environment’s sunny and shallow reputation. It loves movies and artifice, crafting spectacle and seizing classic magic rather than hunting realism in anything but its emotions. The love story (aside from its sizzling, easy-going, classically teasing chemistry) tracks what happens when two idealists are boiled down to their selfish, unrealistic cores and then asked to make a real relationship work — it’s hard work, and trials mirror their own paths on the way to jazz pianist fame for Gosling or actress roles for Stone.
Neither is completely satisfied, but with their dreams so high and their sacrifices so readily at hand, we know they’ve been blinded by an affection for pastiche and a dreamy imagination crafted from well-remembered musical numbers of the golden era of Hollywood. The jazzy songs, sung with Gosling’s lazy purr and Stone’s surprising pipes, recall smoky clubs with their repeated melancholy motifs and lyrics of doubtful hope. The pair might find individual success, but their paths to happiness are complicated by the very shallowness their professions appeal to. Performers must perform, but what does that strip away from the individual behind the art?
La La Land shows us a Hollywood fable of failure and desperation dressed up with a fresh coat of new-wave earnestness and nostalgia, though the notoriously cutthroat ambition of the entertainment world bubbles like the asphalt in the LA sun. When the characters dance — in wondrous references to Rebel Without a Cause and every musical on Turner Classic Movies’ roster — they enter dreams in which irony and enthusiasm battle for ground. Postmodernism and post-postmodernism grapple in between the clefs of the sheet music. We enjoy the references and the homages, but the jaded originality cutting through them make La La Land something entirely new.
Like The Artist in 2011, La La Land plays with a genre of film we haven’t seen in modern popularity for some time and has generated a lot of award buzz. However, it succeeds where The Artist failed. The Artist felt shackled by its touchstones — too light and hollow so audiences wouldn’t balk at its old-fashioned style. La La Land circumvents this problem with impressive complexity. On the surface, its gleam can be read as a saccharine idol carved from the remnants of well-loved musicals, but as the paint is chipped away with every indelicate remark between its leads or creative use of narrative timing, the film opens wide to a world of human depth.
Aside from a brief scene with John Legend, the film’s construction is nearly perfect — the opening song is a sarcastic delight, and the montages are crafted as a delicate series of dates once we get to know our leads through parties (the most California way to do so). Stone’s getting-ready song is a standout number while Gosling will never allow you to hear A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” the same way ever again. Both perform wonderfully, with Gosling embracing his natural slapstick chops to undercut his heartthrob status and Stone crushing every challenge before her with an iron that never hardens her giant, hopeful eyes.
It’s spectacular for all ages, though showing this to your kids might result in requests for a road trip to Hollywood for a studio tour. If you like musicals, romances or movies that love movies, La La Land earns your devoted affection with every highly coordinated number.