DIRECTOR: Damien Chazelle
MPAA RATING: PG-13
RUNTIME: 128 minutes
A song can happen anywhere in La La Land because it exists in a world that we so rarely see these days – that of the old-fashioned movie musical. There isn’t an ounce of self-consciousness or cynicism in writer/director Damien Chazelle’s approach to this format, and he has no problem beginning the film with an elaborate number performed by dozens of folks stuck in a traffic jam.
It’s December, but they’re in Los Angeles so it’s just another hot and sunny day. Within a matter of seconds, they have gone from sitting in their cars to dancing and singing on top of them. They recall their pasts, renew their hopes and bemoan the slowness of the present. A trio of musicians appears in the back of a storage truck and performs an elaborate interlude. Why? Because they can.
This sequence is unrepentantly bold, and although it has fairly little to do with the plot about to unfold, it serves as an announcement that we are entering that long forgotten world, and it will be a wonderful journey. Even when the story proper is set into motion, it’s built on beautifully precise foundations, towering with dreamy possibilities.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who, like many, is desperately waiting for her big break. Every audition seems to be a failure. She makes ends meet by working as a barista in a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot, spending her break time marveling at the cinematic history around her. A series of chance encounters, often in awkward situations, introduces her to Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist who is also having trouble succeeding in his field.
The two are young, idealistic and attractive, so why shouldn’t they fall in love? Their first few months together are warm and wonderful, as their trying professional lives begin to feel a little bit more bearable. But nothing lasts forever, and as their own situations grow and change, so do the dynamics of their relationship. Reality rears its ugly head, and challenges present themselves in the odd, unpredictable ways. Sebastian and Mia are faced with a series of hard choices, and it may not be possible to find a perfect compromise every time.
There are about a half-dozen songs in La La Land, and when done right, they are powerful, welcome additions to the story. Not all of them have to be especially catchy or memorable, but Chazelle – alongside composers Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – integrates the pieces in a way that good musicals do: as supplements to our understanding of the plot, not replacements for missing links in the writing.
The screenplay moves seamlessly, with its smooth mixture of snappy dialogue and glossy music. Mia and Sebastian are well-developed characters, whose harmonies and conflicts are presented with equal depth and significance. The bumps in the road that they come across do not seem arbitrary, nor do their reactions. Gosling and Stone are more than game to handle this material, and it helps that they have been co-stars before. Their chemistry is that much more established.
In an odd way, however, reflecting upon the caliber of La La Land’s onscreen talent makes me reflect upon some of the issues which detract from the film’s efforts. It seems that amongst all of the glowing feelings that are brought about here, an occasional lack of forethought with regards to what will matter to the audience leads to undesirable outcomes.
Overly cutesy moves on Chazelle’s part – like a decision to make the opening freeway scene look as if it was captured in one shot – have a feeble “look-at-me” attitude about them which is needless. A number of elaborate sequences, ranging from the middling (a tracking shot following characters jumping into a pool) to the overt (a pointlessly prolonged event in the planetarium at Griffith Park Observatory which climaxes with Gosling and Stone dancing in outer space), are never distractingly unwelcome but rather insufficiently contextualized. The reason that the movie’s cold open is so effective is because it is unexpected. Those few attempts to bring us back to that first sense of “wow” are met with diminishing returns.
Yet for each of these instances of shoddy overpunching, there are several more that bring everything back to its tender and genuine roots. Chazelle is never in over his head and always remembers that the greatest asset he carries here is the ability to make powerful moments from simple elements. Minimally arranged duets and solos are heartrending bookmarks, which stay in the mind longer than an extraterrestrial waltz.
That grounded atmosphere of bittersweet passion is what makes the movie excel. After all, the story’s eleven-o’clock-number is a direct tribute to “the ones who dream,” an acknowledgement of what makes the film’s concept so wonderful to begin with. The final 20 minutes of La La Land are a powerful, melancholy coda, yet its effectiveness does not come solely from expansive staging and ambitious visuals – but rather the emotional power packed behind it all. It builds over the two-hour runtime to a satisfying conclusion that leaves viewers with smiles on their faces and a lump in their throats.