The last time I was bowled over by a musical was back in 2002 when Chicago cleaned up at the Academy Awards. Going from there to the leg shaking mastery of Fred Astaire, there’s not a lot in between. But now, from Damien Chazelle, the directorial wunderkind who made banging a drum such a vicious game of egos in Whiplash (2014), the increasingly rare genre gets a slick revisionist redress that takes bold chances and wins on most counts.
Not much can prepare you for what goes on in La La Land. The film begins with a somber traffic jam as the camera slowly pulls through the gully between inert cars. The feeling of gridlock dread is overpowering, much akin to Jean-Luc Godard’s new wave classic, Weekend (1967), but then, as it settles in through the car window of one calm young woman in a sheer yellow dress, she begins to sing a wistful song in a soft, low key. Two minutes later the highway is abuzz in dance and a choral number (a kick up your heels tune called “Another Day in the Sun”) in a long shot that’s more audacious than the opening of Robert Altman’s The Player (1992). It’s hard to believe but true. There are so many performers and stunts going on — the parkour guy gliding smoothly across the hoods of cars with a half-pike twist over the jersey barrier as he flies in and out of frame so seamlessly, you wonder how exhausted he was at the end of the shoot and how it’s humanly possible to maintain such a wide ‘oh happy day’ smile on his beaming face — that the degree of difficulty during the song is off the charts. The retake quotient must have been high, and the result is so astonishing, it seems impossible to top.
To that end, La La Land is a romance as so many Astaire and Ginger Rodgers offerings were. At the end of that traffic snarl, as the cars begin to move, there’s a mini road rage moment where Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist short on cash and full of righteous idealism, leans on the horn to stir Mia (Emma Stone) from her hopeful daydream. The two likable stars sing and dance themselves, and while it’s never on a scale comparable to the opener, Sebastian and Mia’s intertwined journey of desire and hope is so genuine and universal that Chazelle’s slick eruptions into song smoothly underscore that sentiment.
Following that inglorious freeway meeting, the two bump into each other again — literally — at a jazz club where Sebastian’s been recently fired by his boss (J. K. Simmons) for playing “real jazz.” Then, at a party where he’s slumming it in an ’80s retro band, Mia puts in a request for A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” — it’s love at third slight. They move in together and grapple with their youthful dreams. Mia quits her job as a barista on the Warner Brothers lot to write and produce a one-woman play. Sebastian holds his nose and teams up with former band mate Keith (John Legend) who’s added synth and pop vocals to make jazz more commercially viable. It’s a good gig too as the group plays sold out venues, but that means Sebastian’s always on the road. The stress and strain of that on their relationship is fairly predictable, but how Chazelle moves with it, as he plays with time and bittersweet emotions, is anything but.
The film’s overall romantic dreaminess is best encapsulated in a middle scene where the early dating pair go to see A Rebel Without A Cause. For reasons I’ll leave unsaid they never get to the end of the movie and instead hop in the car and reenact the film’s famous Griffith Observatory scene to a degree and then fall into an old Hollywood sound stage moment as they float up to the stars. Chazelle himself shoots for the stars, and while he doesn’t always get there, there’s magic in every frame — scrumptiously shot by Linus Sandgren, who’s framed a slew of David O’Russell projects. If there’s one thing about La La Land it’s deeply derivative, and yet wholly original, an odd mix that will keep audiences on their toes.