Sometimes you walk into a film that just feels like it was designed exclusively for you. Watching Damien Chazelle’s exuberant, melancholy-tinged La La Land, it felt as though someone took everything I could potentially love in a film and put it on the screen.
First, I’m a sucker for an unapologetic, old-school musical, in which bickering couples fall in love to tuneful songs, emotive dance, and “moon” rhymes with “June.” La La Land is the kind of musical in which individuals tap towards each other and burst in song without reluctance or embarrassment. It’s also about the appealing allure of the past, how much better the world seems when sunsets and settings are the epitomes of picturesque. It features nods to classic musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but the film is also plastered with background images of iconic film stars and sends its appealing leads to a showing of Rebel without a Cause. Even the film’s title is a reference to an old-fashioned Los Angeles nickname.
It’s rare for a film to both cling to the past and look towards the future, but La La Land manages to make doing both seem effortless. Chazelle’s last film, Whiplash, was also about the cost of striving for artistic perfection. It’s musical performances crackled with life and explosive drama, portraying drum solos like boxing matches (complete with bloody hands). La La Land has the same vivacious pulse, but it also has a winsomeness firmly rooted in a love of the grace and playful romance of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers.
The film opens with a Los Angeles traffic jam, the soundtrack the disharmony of honking horns, running engines, and screeching brakes. From that dissonance comes a young girl exiting her car and singing of the life she left behind to seek fame in L.A. Eventually, the entire cast has joined the song, leaping out of their cars, singing and dancing, rainbow colors twirling. As soon as the song fades, the spell breaks and the traffic jam seamlessly resumes, and the perils of modern day frustrations creep back in.
Within that traffic jam are Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actress and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling pianist who wants to open a jazz club. Of course the two of them meet and fall in love through tap dancing. That goes without saying. The central story and conflict at La La Land’s core is hardly uncharted territory, but isn’t that always the case with musical comedies? After all, how many romances examine the difficulty of balancing career with love? The familiarity of the setup doesn’t really matter, though. The film’s about feelings so overwhelming and sincerely felt that simple spoken words cannot do them justice. Some emotions are just meant to be sung, and the score with music by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics Justin Paul and Benj Pasek reinforce the film’s blend of the classic and the modern. The score sounds like Berlin and The Gershwins, but the lyrics crackle with modern wit and heartbreak.
La La Land is a kaleidoscopic array of technicolor glory, with colors that practically jete off of the screen. Its look is of a dream world only sporadically interrupted by reality. The camera lingers and twirls around the action, both echoing the lingering shots of the past and reveling in the film’s blend of classic imagery with modern aesthetic. Stone and Gosling (previously seen together practicing the Dirty Dancing lift in Crazy, Stupid Love) practically exude charisma through their pores. They may not be the most flawless of singers or dancers, but they are stellar actors. They can sell the emotions even when their vocal ranges are limited or their choreography is a bit stiff. Stone, with her Kewpie doll eyes and enigmatic smile, is especially winning. She nails the film’s fast-paced, screwball, romantic dialogue and conveys her character’s later heartbreak with ease.
La La Land is a film about the desire to live in the past and the pangs that occur when modern times threaten to puncture romantic illusions. It’s beautiful and romantic and heartbreaking. It features winning leads performances, a strong score, and a writer/ director whose love of both the classic and modern cinema. So, I’m going to take my critic’s decoder ring off for a second, and just be honest. I love this film. I love its flowy, romantic style, its jazz meets Great American Songbook score, the gorgeous cinematography, the appealing leads. This film just ticked every one of my boxes. It made me feel elated and brighter than I was when I sat down in front of the screen, and sometimes that’s just what you need a film to do.