The movie musical has been on the comeback trail ever since Chicago won Best Picture back in 2002, but it has evolved into a different beast. Nowadays, musicals need to be more authentic. Tom Hooper insisted on having his actors sing live in his poorly received 2012 adaptation of Les Miserables. Meanwhile, John Carney’s trio of neo-musicals—Once, Begin Again, and this year’s Sing Street—reject the core expressionism of the genre that allows its characters to spontaneously burst into song. Instead, his characters are musicians, which makes the musical numbers more realistic. In a world that holds authenticity as the highest virtue, the making an old-fashioned Hollywood musical would be a very bold move.
But Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is unapologetically that kind of musical. It opens on a typical L.A. traffic jam, zooming in on a random driver. She starts to sing, gets out of her car, and begins dancing. Others follow, and it builds to an enormous, Broadway-style music number unironically titled, “Another Day of Sun.” The camera never cuts, ducking and weaving through the traffic to make sure every driver, even those who appear to be extras, gets a chance for a close-up. In Chazelle’s relentlessly rosy version of Hollywood, everyone deserves their moment in the sun.
Only a film this guileless could take the worst thing about living in L.A.—traffic—and turn it into a treat. It plasters a smile on your face that will last at least through its superb first act, which depicts the courtship of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist, and Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling TV actress. In any other film, their series of meet-cutes would be entirely implausible. In La La Land, it’s just magical enough. First, he cuts her off on the highway, and she gives him the finger. Later, she stumbles into a restaurant where he’s slumming, getting paid to play Christmas songs to uninterested, middle-aged diners. She catches the one moment when he breaks from the set list and plays a movingly virtuosic bit of jazz. Before she can compliment him, he gets fired and storms off.
True to most couples of classic cinema, their relationship is defined at first through flirtatious insults. They finally connect at a party in the Hollywood Hills, where he is playing keyboard in an ‘80s cover band. She requests “I Ran” by A Flock of Seagulls just to embarrass him. Later that day, they fall in love under a gorgeous L.A. Sunset, and Sebastian sings to Mia, “We’ve stumbled on a view/That’s tailor-made for two/It’s just a shame those two are me and you.” Rarely has a film with such an open heart had such sharp edges.
Beyond its toe-tapping musical numbers and colorful visual palate, La La Land also has substance, as it deftly depicts the burdens of art and commerce on a young relationship. As Sebastian and Mia make their way through the city, posters of classic Hollywood stars pepper the background. In addition to placing La La Land in its proper cinematic context, these images remind us of the unreachable ghosts these characters are chasing. Sebastian sees jazz as a dying art to revive. He dreams of opening his own club (named “Chicken on a Stick” after Charlie Parker’s favorite meal) but eventually takes a gig with a jazz-pop band led by his old nemesis (John Legend) for the steady paycheck.
As he sells out, Mia buys in. She gives up on pilot season and spending her savings on a one-woman showcase. Both strategies run a high risk of failure, which could threaten a relationship already weakened by Sebastian’s frantic tour schedule. And so their relationship is defined by a well-framed question: When two people fall in love with each other’s dreams, what happens when those dreams start to die?
Gosling and Stone bring this portrait to life with star-caliber performances. They handle the dance numbers with natural grace, and they have a fun, loose chemistry—developed over the course of two prior films, Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad—that helps gloss over the script’s reliance on clichés. That’s what movie stars are for: to be relaxed and charming, and to reveal themselves to the audience in ways that are both entertaining and emotionally-resonant. These two make it look easy. Stone dances like no one’s watching, and Gosling shows more vulnerability than he has since Blue Valentine.
And so even if the plot feels a little thin, that’s a small price to pay for Chazelle’s dogged commitment to re-creating the feel of musicals—such as Singin’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg—that are ancient Hollywood history. But La La Land isn’t mere homage. It captures the soul of the genre, creating a bright, colorful portrait of love and art that miraculously retains its optimism in the face of reality. A melancholic ode to the dream-makers, La La Land is good enough to make history.
Rating: 4.5 Toe-Tapping Burritos out of 5
Images: Summit Entertainment