If Whiplash was blunt force cinema straight from Damien Chazelle’s gut, La La Land is a gleeful waltz directly from his heart. He applies the same passion that delivered the former’s soul-rattling, blood-dripping tension, but this time taps into the nerve endings that elicit toe-tapping and heart-soaring. What an extraordinary experience, moving deftly from one tone to the next without ever losing sight of the same underlying thematic preoccupations – internal drive, artistic obsession, seeking one’s identity through a perfection of artistry. Such a filmmaker is referred to as an “auteur,” and Chazelle fits that bill precisely. He makes films that erupt dazzlingly, be it in torment, delight, or a compulsive combination.
La La Land is, indeed, a combination of glee and wistfulness, a musical as capable of staying earthbound as it is ascending into the cosmos – literally. It is something of a hybrid, this lavish musical that also dabbles in tormented heartache, this direct homage to classical Hollywood that is nevertheless entirely modern in content and setting. The result is a piece of empirically irresistible cinema, an amalgam of everything we’ve loved historically and everything we love currently, a time capsule of two disparate periods. It’s the kind of film that could only come from someone like Chazelle, a slavish student of film history who is also barely 30 years old.
The project has long been the filmmaker’s passion, a passion that is imbued in every frame, every line, every note, every slickly-choreographed, masterfully sound-designed toe-tap. Sound and image are at times in purposeful discordance throughout – not necessarily with each other, but rather with traditional expectations of standard film form. The film’s sound design underscores voices and dance steps to the point of transparent recording studio perfection; the visual environment runs the gamut from naturalism to complete magical elevation. In a work that is already presumed to run counter to expectations, La La Land is constantly recalibrating itself from one moment to the next. It is that most elusive of accomplishments, a movie that doesn’t sit dead the moment it flickers on the screen, but comes alive, breathing and beating before our eyes.
For all its elaborate mounting, however, each move within La La Land feel organic unto itself, moving to the rhythms of its characters and themes. A film must be replete with charms if it takes this long to mention the brilliance of its on-screen performers, led by Emma Stone as Mia and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian. She’s an aspiring actress, he’s a fledgling jazz pianist, and they’re both working in the simultaneously invigorating and uncompromising environs of Los Angeles, that mythical wonderland. They meet cute, initially hate each other, but swiftly fall into swooning musical love. The premise is pure Studio System Hollywood, but the complexity of the specific character quirks moves this material into a plane of modern messiness. Not everything is sunshine and rainbows. Even as our central couple tap dances in marvelous unison with a dreamy Hollywood horizon as their backdrop, their tenuous dreams of stardom teeter on the brink of collapse. Even as they float into the starry heavens of the Griffith Observatory, their relationship is tested by a combination of selfish ambition and unavoidable showbiz inertia.
What a delicate balancing act for these actors, and how remarkably they pull it off. For Stone, this is like a coming-out party for someone who already came out years ago. It confirms everything we’ve always loved about her uniquely infectious charisma, yet adds new shades, hits new notes. Gosling is about as atypical as one might imagine for this frothy format, yet here he’s the matinee idol, the ideal embodiment of a defiant virtuoso whose brooding exterior veils a beating, bleeding heart.
The same description could be applied, verbatim, to the film itself. There’s a revealing line delivered in the second act, from a suppressive mainstream sell-out: “You can’t be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist.” La La Land is demonstrable proof to the contrary – it swoons over the classical framework but is never afraid to break the rules to adjust to the modern reality. It pristinely preserves the whimsical broadness of the old-style studio musical but injects a deliberately contradictory dose of present-day anxieties. Its duality is baked right into its title: La La Land, the elevated dream world, projected onto movie screens and consumed by our imaginations, but always subject to the crushing inevitabilities of real life. So it goes with this film, a revolutionary because it’s a traditionalist.