There are movies you respect, and movies you admire, and movies you love. The ones you love become part of your life, your philosophy; they stay in your head whether you saw them five days or five decades ago. They’re the ones you see again, or just think of, when you need inspiration, illumination, or just cheering up. La La Land, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s celebration of movies, music, musicals and the people who make, or desperately want to make them, is a movie I love. Its final sequence, somehow simultaneously heartbreaking and exhilarating like few such I’ve ever seen (E.T., or Glory, maybe), has been replaying on a loop in my head for days now, an ingenious visualization of the choices we make, what we do for and to art, and what it does for, and to, us. It says more in a few minutes of music and imagery what other films do with reams of heavy-handed dialogue (skip the trailer before you see it, it gives away a couple of key moments).
But I get ahead of myself. Before La La even gets to that, it’s a love song to Los Angeles, the city of dreams. “Here’s to the Fools Who Dream” goes the tagline, and the film centers on two of those fools: aspiring jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia, a barista on the Warner lot (Emma Stone) with acting ambitions. They meet non-cute, and soon discover their passion for performing is turning into passion for each other. Can he maintain his devotion to traditional jazz? Can she bear another soul-crushing audition? It’s not a new story, but one that deserves retelling for each generation, and Chazelle has done it beautifully, mixing old-school song-and-dance with visual and aural references not only to classic MGM musicals but Rebel Without a Cause, Casablanca, 8 ½ , and especially The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, reportedly Chazelle’s favorite movie (which would make a wonderful double bill with this one).
Before waxing further on all that La La Land is, I could describe what it isn’t. A day after seeing it I watched a telecast of Chicago, for the first time in many years. The 2002 film, directed by Bob Fosse associate Rob Marshall, was the first musical since 1968’s Oliver! to win the Best Picture Oscar, and deserves all due credit for resurrecting the genre in style. But the musical numbers, befitting the early 2000’s, are largely created in post-production—they’re so frenetic and over-edited, you can’t tell if Richard Gere, or Rene Zellweger, or Catherine Zeta-Jones could really dance more than a few steps at a time. Maybe they could, but that kind of editing could make me look like Gene Kelly. The same can be said for Moulin Rouge and Les Misérables.
Chazelle doesn’t leave you wondering. He directs sometimes astonishingly long, uninterrupted master shots of singing and dancing, from the “how’d he DO that?” opening (an L.A. traffic jam breaks into chorus) to Ryan and Emma’s graceful duets in Griffith Park. Linus Sandgren’s dazzling cinematography, with its Technicolor hues and exquisite lighting, completes the vision.
La La Land has been hit with some criticism that Gosling and Stone are miscast since they’re not trained singers with powerful voices. It’s true they aren’t belters of the Howard Keel or Ethel Merman variety, but they’re both fine actors, and I think their voices fit the way their characters would sing, and better that than hearing them clearly dubbed á la Marni Nixon. Stone even gets to do her show-stopping “Audition” number live, not lip-synching to playback. And Gosling’s really doing his own piano playing, to Justin Hurwitz’s wonderful score. John Legend (also an executive producer on this), as Sebastian’s old bandmate who pulls him back in, and J. K. Simmons, the Supporting Actor Oscar winner of Chazelle’s Whiplash (which likewise told a familiar story with a knockout finale), give fine support; I would’ve liked more of Simmons, or better yet, a song from him (and he is a trained Broadway performer).
But that’s a small quibble. This is a movie to fall in love with, to fall in love at, to make love to. I plan on seeing it again and again, to come back to it many times in the future, and I’ll bet I see something new in it every time.
» La La Land (PG-13, 128 min.) is in wide release