I’M STILL HUMMING, as I drum away at my keyboard, the tune to La La Land’s second and, undoubtedly, best song, ‘Someone in a Crowd’, which arrives about fifteen minutes into Damien Chazelle’s charming and remarkable new film.
In the first scene, the motorists in a rush-hour traffic jam on a section of Los Angeles freeway leap from their cars and burst into a flamboyant, large-scale song-and-dance number filmed in a single shot. But La La Land isn’t, thankfully, all lively, large-scale musical numbers. Nor is it one of those films that contrives its plot to suit its songs. In the latter case, the two go hand in hand, or perhaps cheek to cheek, like the film’s shining leads, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, in a bittersweet tale of love and ambition in the City of Angels.
In that opening scene, sat behind the wheel of a Toyota Prius practicing her lines, is Mia (Emma Stone) an aspiring actress and playwright who works in a café on the Warner Bros. lot. In the shiny ’82 Buick behind her is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own club. The cars they drive seem to reflect their personalities–Mia is practical and modern-minded; Sebastian is stubbornly traditional–but we find soon enough that what drives the both of them is a very old-fashioned dream for creative success in a ruthlessly commercial Hollywood.
The pair’s first aimless night-time stroll has the charmingly nostalgic feel of Gil Pender’s wanderings in Midnight in Paris and before that––and no doubt more fittingly–another film set in the city of love, An American in Paris.
The pair’s first aimless night-time stroll has the charmingly nostalgic feel of Gil Pender’s wanderings in Midnight in Paris and before that––and no doubt more fittingly––another film set in the city of love, An American in Paris. And like Gil Pender in Woody Allen’s 2011 film, Chavelle salutes a Golden Age: La La Land might be set in the modern day, but the feel of the film is decidedly old-school. Mia has a poster of Ingrid Bergman on her wall while Sebastian has a stool that belonged to Hoagy Carmichael, and, visually, La La Land alludes to Singing in’ the Rain and other classics of the Forties and Fifties.
But La La Land isn’t a sparkly fairy tale romance. In the second part of the film the mood darkens, (which is fitting, really, for a film made by the man who turned a small-scale, jazz-band drama into one of the darkest thrillers in the last half-decade). Like Whiplash, La La Land explores struggle of the artist, but while the tone in Whiplash is dark, the tone in La La Land is, for the most part at least, light and playful. If there is a central conflict in La La Land it is between love and artistic ambition, and what defines artistic success, and in this Chazelle asks more questions than gives answers.
If you’ve also seen Gosling and Stone act together in Crazy, Stupid Love or in the (admittedly underwhelming) Gangster Squad, you’ll be hard pressed to think of another screen couple with more chemistry or more charm, and their beautiful, if simply choreographed sequences, courtesy of Mandy Moore (no, not that one), are intimate enough as to make the viewer feel that they are in some way trespassing on a moment. Both Gosling and Stone, it’s needless to say at this point, are brilliant, moving seamlessly and naturally from song to dramatic scene and to song again, while R&B artist John Legend does a fine job as Sebastian’s friend, the commercialist musician Keith, who asks the necessary question of what exactly entails the artistic ‘selling out’ that Sebastian fears.
If you’ve also seen Gosling and Stone act together in Crazy, Stupid Love or in the (admittedly underwhelming) Gangster Squad, you’ll be hard pressed to think of another screen couple with more chemistry or more charm, and their beautiful, if simply choreographed sequences, are intimate enough as to make the viewer feel that they are in some way trespassing on a moment.
There’s a definite lull in the third quarter of La La Land that leaves you wishing for a return to the more upbeat numbers of the first act, and some of the songs have a tendency to slip into moodiness and melancholy. But Chazelle redeems himself in the last twenty minutes, which includes one of the most exquisitely conceived and perfectly executed film sequences of recent years.
La La Land is Chazelle’s love letter to Hollywood, to jazz and to the struggling artist. It’s at once a fantasy and a parable, bitter and sweet, impassioned and restrained. It isn’t the perfect film that some have impetuously declared it to be, but it is, nevertheless, utterly enchanting.