La La Land is more of a musical mashup than a straightforward musical. Through its songs, its wardrobe, and even its palette, it’s an affectionate homage to the pas de deux in classics like An American in Paris or Singin’ in the Rain. Yet this nostalgic cocktail contains a contemporary twist, making it go down bittersweet.
Damien Chazelle, the writer-director of the Oscar-winning Whiplash, has had a song in his heart since his black-and-white 2009 debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, about a jazz trumpeter and his shy soulmate. La La Land feels every inch the labor of love—filmed in CinemaScope, no less, for maximum widescreen effect—with heartfelt performances and fantastical moments such as snow sprinkling over the crowd of filmmakers and wannabes at a tony Hollywood party.
It’s a dreamy moment, like its dream-world title, yet all is not effervescent. There’s wistfulness here, too, along with longing and an acknowledgment that dreaming is one thing but working toward them involves painstaking choices.
That push-pull between aspiration and doubt draws together Mia (Emma Stone), an actress working in a studio-lot coffee shop, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist playing whatever gigs he can get until he opens his own club. The two meet less-than-cute on the freeway during the first few minutes, an unbroken sequence where gridlocked drivers hop out of their cars, sing, and dance among BMX acrobats and timpani drums.
The two keep crossing paths thanks to music and fate, first through the plaintive and haunting melody he plays in a restaurant and later at a summer party. These two have such sparkling chemistry that when they walk to her car through circuitous streets, stopping to twirl around a lamppost and sing that the gorgeous view is wasted on them, they’re protesting too much. Their romance literally takes flight during a trip to the Griffith Observatory, where he gently lifts her into the air inside the planetarium and they actually dance among the stars.
Los Angeles, its allure, and the hopefuls who populate the background like the striving guys in Swingers are as much characters in La LaLand as Mia and Sebastian. Mixing obvious soundstages with iconic locations, the production design, art direction, cinematography, and wardrobe give the couple a retro look among Crayola colors. Stone’s blue and green dresses in particular make her luminous eyes pop off the screen. She and Gosling, who sizzled through the humor in 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love, might not have the fancy footwork of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but they’re radiant together nonetheless, zinging through their rapport as well as their steps.
Yet having lifted us to the stars, Chazelle lands us squarely back on earth. Conflict arrives in the form of musician John Legend, an executive producer on the film who plays a touring jazz-pop artist in need of a keys man. Overhearing Mia explain his goals (“No, he’s nobody yet,” she says on the phone), Sebastian signs up, taking him on the road. Meanwhile, Mia struggles with writing and producing a one-woman show. The music and the fancy stop as Sebastian frets he’s sold out, though he’s too proud to say as much, and Mia fears she’s not good enough to break out of the pipe dream, one more redhead in an audition elevator in a town full of them.
Justin Hurwitz, who handled the music for Chazelle’s other projects, orchestrated the original score and the songs, which are such a part of the story’s fabric that we miss them when they’re gone. The film culminates in a wordless musical interlude similar to those in many a Gene Kelly movie, a triumphant throwback with a lingering melancholy, one look and a song encompassing what might have been.
Chazelle lists Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as an influence, so we know the sunshine won’t last, but the lovers encourage each other so sincerely that romantics will want more for these two. Still, like one of its songs, this film is for the ones who dream, foolishly perhaps, make a mess of things, and would do it all again in a heartbeat.