4 / 5 stars
You don’t have to be a sentimental fool to appreciate La La Land, but it sure does help. Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is quite fond of sentimentality and, for the most part, so are its characters. If you approach this spirited alt-take on the Hollywood musical with a skip in your step and a song in your heart, you’ll find a piece of cinematic magic. Your skips per step may vary.
Chazelle gets the tunes started in traditional modern-musical fashion, as an unnamed chorus line of players leap out of their cars in standstill freeway traffic to jump around – in an unfortunately forgettable number. We then meet our exceedingly endearing characters, a stubborn purist of a jazz pianist named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, in his 2nd great performance of 2016, with The Nice Guys) and Mia, a twinkle-in-her-eye coffee barista with big-screen dreams (Emma Stone, more than making up for her big miss in Birdman). The soon-to-be couple banter easily, move with confidence, and sarcastically swoon at the sight of an LA valley sunset.
La La Land gets started with conventional methods – the way Chazelle introduces his leads, sets up their stories, has them interact with supporting players. Mia rushes home after the traffic jam to chatter with her roommates via a brisk-but-basic little song that’s both very familiar and easy enough to tune out.
Thankfully, Chazelle, who both wrote and directed, has some wonderful, patient tricks up his sleeve. As La La Land picks up speed, the lightness gives way to a touch of romantic gravity, and the story and dialogue slip further away from their Golden Age origins. It’s a necessary change – I don’t think La La Land would hold up for two hours otherwise. Is Chazelle smart enough, in just his second feature, to orchestrate this transition? To begin in well-worn territory and detour at the right time?
It doesn’t matter. This film gets better as it goes along, especially when it relies less on “musical numbers” and lets its clearly well-rehearsed leads talk do the talking (and some dancing). A late-night walk between Gosling and Stone results in a simple song about that very moment, overlooking the valley, with just enough shuffle and swing to create an authenticity of sorts. It’s clear these are two Hollywood stars dancing, rather than two Hollywood dancers. Their singing voices are fine – Stone chirps with emotion – and their steps are good enough to entertain. Anything beyond that would ring false.
I’ve always been a sucker for stories about artifice, and while La La Land revels in its façade – as does all of Los Angeles, as we see – Chazelle still wants us to feel that heartstring tug for Sebastian and Mia, and Gosling and Stone make that easy. But something smarter is going on. The emotion that Stone displays as Mia is not too different from the fake tears Mia turns on at auditions. Sebastian has to put on a happy face when playing with a successful pop band, when he’d rather be riffing jazz in a smoky club. We’re not getting deep here, nor should we, but there’s a nod to the inherent absurdity of musicals and the ego required for acting.
Like any traditional L.A.-based musical, La La Land is about people with big dreams whose hopes are challenged when they fall in love. That all works. But Chazelle excels in the scenes without music, and brings the story around with an exceptionally satisfying ending that shows his skill as both a director and a storyteller, with a compassion for both his characters and his audience.