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If you’re going to fall hard for Damien Chazelle’s daring and beautiful La La Land, it will probably be at first sight. There’s never been anything quite like the opening sequence: Traffic is at a standstill on the high, curving ramp that connects the 105 freeway to the 110 leading to downtown Los Angeles. Most of the cars are occupied only by single drivers, who are all listening to different music. But after a moment, instead of just sitting there simmering, somebody gets out and starts singing and dancing. Soon someone else does the same. Then another, and yet another, until a bad mood has been replaced by a joyous one as the road becomes the scene for a giant musical production number set to an exuberant big-band beat.
Aside from wondering how the filmmakers managed the logistics of pulling off such an audacious location shoot, lovers of classic musicals will be swept away by this utterly unexpected and original third feature from Damien Chazelle (opening this year’s Venice Film Festival). From a commercial point of view, the looming question for this Summit/Lionsgate release, set for December openings, is whether younger audiences will buy into the traditional conceits that Chazelle has revitalized, as well as into the jazz and lyrical song-and-dance numbers that fill the soundtrack.
Only foreign-film connoisseurs of a certain age will realize that the writer-director’s true inspiration here stems not as much from vintage Hollywood musicals (although allusions to them abound) as from the late French director Jacques Demy’s two landmark 1960s musicals with Michel Legrand, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort — especially the latter, which was far more dance- and jazz-oriented. Although serious romantic longing and love’s poignant transience underpin the narratives for both Demy and Chazelle, both films share a breezy lightness of tone that keeps their narratives skipping along.
And while Chazelle’s breakthrough success two years ago with Whiplash also possessed a central, if eccentric, musical component, La La Land bears a much closer kinship with his mini-budgeted 2010 Harvard undergraduate feature Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench, which was a sung-and-danced-through musical.
As did so many American musicals made before the mid-1960s, this one pivots on a simple boy-meets-girl/they fall in love/complications ensue scenario. For this to work at all, you need to have attractive and sympathetic leading actors, and once you see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone go into their moves here, it’s as pleasurable to accept them in such roles as it once might have been to embrace, say, Gene Kelly and Shirley MacLaine.
Their “meet cute” takes place on the freeway. Actress Mia (Stone) works in a cute cafe on the Warner Bros. lot (they should open it for real) and has been on a grinding run of fruitless auditions; she’s “someone just waiting to be found,” as she puts it in a plaintive song. A skilled pianist, Sebastian (Gosling) is fed up with providing tinkling background music at bars and restaurants (J.K. Simmons fires him from one gig); he’s a jazz freak, loves Miles Davis and swing bands, hangs at The Lighthouse down at the beach and is convinced that he’s “a phoenix rising from he ashes.” In other words, these two are like thousands of others in Hollywood, treading water but hoping to make it in spite of the odds.
Played out across the four seasons (albeit in different years), their romance begins bumpily. Seb, as he comes to be called, is downright rude to Mia at a springtime pool party, even though she could not look more splendid, quite like a brilliant sunflower, in a perfect yellow dress. Later, when he can no longer kid himself about his feelings for her, an enchanting musical sequence has them strolling and singing in the Hollywood Hills from one streetlamp to another backdropped by a glorious vista.
In just one of countless aesthetic decisions that have gone into making the film the sophisticated confection that it is, many of the musical numbers have been shot at magic hour, which both softens and intensifies the colors, as well as the beauty and romanticism of the mostly real-world Los Angeles settings. The city has rarely looked this gorgeous in films, a credit to the director’s romantic imagination as well as to the technical expertise of Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle), who has superbly composed the movie’s constant movement in the ultra-widescreen 2.52 x 1 aspect ratio.
Once they are a couple, things become, in a word, complicated. Realizing the long odds against Mia’s breaking through as an actress, Seb urges her to write something of her own to perform, which she buckles down to do. Paradoxically, he goes commercial, joining a successful band fronted by Keith (John Legend) that is constantly on tour, dictating long separations. A lengthy postscript, set five years later, features a fantasy dance sequence (a frequent motif of old musicals). But while aiming for poignance, the film loses some of its edge in this final stretch and arguably overstays its welcome by perhaps 10 minutes; bringing the pic in at under two hours would have been advisable.
All the same, for Chazelle to be able to pull this off the way he has is something close to remarkable. The director’s feel for a classic but, for all intents and purposes, discarded genre format is instinctive and intense; he really knows how to stage and frame dance and lyrical movement, to transition smoothly from conventional to musical scenes, to turn naturalistic settings into alluring fantasy backdrops for set pieces and to breathe new life into what many would consider cobwebbed cliches.
The helmer shares his leading man’s preference for bygone styles, and it remains to be seen whether or not the charm and persuasiveness of the film’s look and performances are enough to disarm skeptical young audiences who have rarely, if ever, been exposed to the conventions Chazelle employs so enthusiastically and skillfully.
Happily, the two leads are completely in sync with his objectives. Sebastian has a certain gruff impatience and short temper born of creative frustration, but the concern and love he feels for Mia doesn’t take long to well up. Gosling may not be a trained dancer or musician, but his moves are appealingly his own and months of piano practice have given him convincing style on the keyboards.
Stone is simply a joy as the eternally aspiring actress it’s hard to believe is being passed over. Emotionally alive and able to shift gears on a dime, Stone is all the more convincing in this context as she has the kind of looks that would have been appealing in any era, particularly the 1930s and 1950s.
Many of the old Hollywood neighborhoods and establishments so selectively used here are meant to summon up meaningful movie memories: a date to see a revival screening of Rebel Without a Cause at the (defunct) Rialto Theater in Pasadena immediately segues into a visit to the planetarium at the Griffith Observatory, and one extended sequence makes the Warner Bros. backlot look busier than it probably ever has been since the 1930s.
All of Chazelle’s key collaborators were clearly in total sync with the project’s aims. Composer Justin Hurwitz, who worked on both the director’s previous films, has delivered an LP’s worth of buoyant, charming tunes, mostly in a jazzy vein, with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul supplying the lyrics. Production designer David Wasco and costume designer Mary Zophres adroitly supplied touches of the old and new in an elegant way, while choreographer Mandy Moore similarly danced a stylistic tightrope that greatly helped Chazelle achieve his aim of delivering a welcome gift of vintage goods in a dazzling new package.
Production companies: Summit Entertainment, Marc Platt Productions, Imposter Pictures, Gilbert Films
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemary DeWitt, Finn Wittrock, Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno, Jessica Rothe, Tom Everett, Josh Pence, J.K. Simmons
Director-screenwriter: Damien Chazelle
Producers: Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, Gary Gilbert, Marc Platt
Executive producers: Michael Beugg, Quiyun Long, Molly Smith, Trent Luckinbill, Thad Luckinbill
Director of photography: Linus Sandgren
Production designer: David Wasco
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Tom Cross
Music: Justin Hurwitz
Lyrics: Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Choreographer: Mandy Moore
Casting: Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood
Rated PG-13, 128 minutes
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