Long regarded as quaint at best, obsolete at worst, the musical nonetheless refuses to curl up its twinkle toes and die. The likes of “Evita,” “Moulin Rouge!” “Chicago” and the “Pitch Perfect” movies all breathed new life into a supposedly dying genre. And now director Damien Chazelle follows up his 2014 breakout hit “Whiplash” with the vivacious “La La Land.”
Set in contemporary Los Angeles, this film is a glorious throwback to the MGM musicals of the 40s and 50s, such as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “An American In Paris.” Swooping, pirouetting, the camera picks out drivers on a gridlocked flyover as they spring from their vehicles for a synchronized song-and-dance opening number that grows ever more elaborate and elated until viewers’ hearts can’t help but join in with all this cartwheeling.
What follows never demonstrates quite the same jazz-hands pizazz, but that’s not a bad thing. Instead we’re treated to something altogether more tender and melancholy. The journey begins as we follow wannabe actress Mia (Emma Stone) to a party and later, all alone, into a bar, lured by sad, sweet piano music. It would make for a gorgeous meet and greet if the pianist didn’t barge past her as she approaches, and if they hadn’t crossed paths already on the clogged freeway where their cars were jammed end to end.
The pianist is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and Chazelle rewinds from the moment he bursts past Mia to show us just how he got from the flyover to this point, making us privy to his dream of one day opening his own jazz club. Fate determines that Seb and Mia will meet again and tumble into love. But that’s the easy part…
No lesser talents than Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese have been here before, freighting Golden Era-style musicals with anguish, resentment and failure. But for all their joys (and sorrows), those films didn’t have Justin Hurwitz’s numbers, by turns buoyant, bombastic, flirtatious, nostalgic and mournful.
They also didn’t have a career-best Stone, with eyes bigger than a Studio Ghibli heroine. Or an A-game Gosling, summoning all his chronic cool, sardonic smirks and heart-melting charm, then tossing in the goofball humor he found on “The Nice Guys” for good measure. In “Crazy Stupid, Love,” the stars’ chemistry was palpable; here it damn near overwhelms you.
Both Stone and Gosling can carry a tune (rather sickeningly, given all their other gifts), with any splinters in their voices only adding to the ardor and fragility. They also dance beautifully, making up in style and elegance what their choreographed routines lack in complexity.
This is a musical about feeling, not finish, and a magic-hour soft-shoe shuffle backdropped by the glimmering lights of Los Angeles is impossibly romantic.
With its vivid lensing, color-coded costumes and striking production design that glides from pepped-up naturalism to Technicolor soundstage spectacle, “La La Land” brims with such indelible moments. Like his protagonists, Chazelle shoots for the stars, at one point even allowing Mia and Seb to shake off gravity as they visit Griffith Observatory so they can dance amid dazzling constellations.
And yet, this is also a movie that serves up slanging matches, heartache and, for Mia, a soul-baring audition to match Naomi Watts’ unforgettable showcase in “Mulholland Drive.” It also never loses sight of the sacrifices that go into attaining a dream. In this sense, “La La Land” complements “Whiplash.” While the intensity is dialed back from that movie’s incessant verbal volleys and occasional physical abuse, there is real emotional punishment on display.
Already the darling of the Venice, Toronto and London Film Festivals, “La La Land” is similarly dazzling multiplex audiences and has recently made good on its early favorite status at the 2017 Oscars. Both Gosling and Stone have also won Golden Globe awards for their respective roles. It’s a sophisticated, fervent movie, at once old and new, joyous and heartbreaking, personal and universal.