Damien Chazelle’s La La Land harks back to another era of moviemaking, but it stands entirely on its own two feet. Sometimes those feet jig and hoof and skip and jump, but they are also able to stand completely still while the head looks at someone else across a crowded jazz bar. It’s a musical, but it is much more. It starts as an exuberant fantasy, and when the romantic bits or the musical numbers run the danger of getting too much, real life comes crashing in, rooting the whole dream in firm ground, only to take off again later. It’s over two hours long, but there are no boring bits. There is funk, soul, jazz, tap-dance and waltz, there are vinyl records and live bands, there is beer and coffee. There is love, and there are kisses, and there are fights.
Ryan Gosling does a wonderful job as Sebastian, a pianist who wants to save traditional jazz by getting his own club, but the real star of the movie is Emma Stone as Mia, a talented actress who runs from one audition to the next until her bad luck drives her to write a one-woman play. Stone is perfect for the role. She can play romantic as well as dramatic, and there is a scene where she gets back at Sebastian at a pool party by requesting a pop song from him and his cover band. There is something about her that reminds me of Audrey Hepburn, but with a lot more gumption. As far as I could tell, Stone’s singing is real, as is Gosling’s playing the piano.
La La Land might fall apart with its constant change of tone, but it doesn’t. There are throwaway scenes such as the three seconds where Mia walks along a corridor, her flatmate throws some confetti, and her other flatmate holds the hair dryer under her face, and Mia’s flaming red hair flows through the air. Blink, and that charming scene is gone. There is the scene with the car keys, and the scene where Mia moves through a party crowd frozen in time. La La Land has a lot of such scenes. It is closer to the elegance of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire than to Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, although the camera joins the fun once or twice and dives in and out of a swimming pool just because it wants to. It’s not an outright comedy; I might not have laughed very hard, but I laughed longer than in most comedies of late.
The movie is also about Los Angeles, the real one as well as the imagined one, and the L.A. of old movies. The Griffith Observatory plays a crucial role and is filmed from the same angle as in Rebel Without A Cause. What is new and unexpected in La La Land is that commercial failure is discussed on a personal level. Sebastian has to play the kind of jazz that John Legend is famous for (and kudos to him for playing himself while his keyboarder plays his songs looking maudlin). It’s good music, but it’s not what Seb wants, and Mia calls him on it, and they quarrel. Mia goes to several insulting auditions until she sits down and writes a stageplay for herself – which is also a commercial failure. Mia and Seb love each other, but they also have dreams of their own, dreams that involve ambition and art and commercial success. They have to work hard for a happy ending, and a happy ending might not mean couplehood.
La La Land goes from fun in the sun to melancholia to musical invention to cinematic history to bittersweet memory, and before you know it, it loops back to a scene we have already seen. It’s the most inventive movie you will find currently playing, and it might be just the ticket against the winter blues.