La La Land
LA LA LAND, musical, rated PG-13; Regal Stadium 14, Violet Crown; 3.5 chiles
The Great Depression of the 1930s gave rise to one of the great American art forms, the movie musical. Fred and Ginger soared, glided, and tapped over gleaming polished floors; Busby Berkeley lavished beautiful girls in precise abandon across gloriously impossible sets; Ruby Keeler went out there a youngster and came back a star. When the going got desperate, the desperate got escapist, and found another reality to live in, at least for 90 or so magical minutes at a time.
The movie musical survived the Depression, and the war, and burst into a glorious Technicolor heyday in the ’40s and ’50s with classics like Seven Brides for
Seven Brothers and Singin’ in the Rain, before gradually sinking from view, with occasional reprieves like Francis Ford Coppola’s underrated One from the Heart (1982) and Woody Allen’s whimsical Everyone Says I
Love You (1996). In latter years, we’ve turned to different diversionary memes, and our cinematic distractions have tended to come with explosions and buckets of blood and hails of bullets. And that model shows no signs of going away. But here comes Damien Chazelle, the brilliant young director of the gritty 2014 jazz film
Whiplash, to salve the wounds of a bruised and riven country with a movie that’s a throwback and an homage to the movies, and especially the musicals, of an earlier age.
La La Land, like so many stories before it, pays tribute to the young artist with a dream, struggling against long odds to make a splash in show business. Here the hopefuls are Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who flings aside her barista apron at a studio lot coffee shop to rush to auditions that perpetually quash, but do not extinguish, her hopes; and Seb (Ryan Gosling), a pianist trying to hold onto his classic jazz ideals in a world where that once-towering American art form, like the movie musical, seems to have lost its hold on the popular imagination.
They meet in a traffic jam. Or at least, that’s where they first lay eyes on each other. Chazelle opens with a full-blown dance number that blossoms out of gridlock on a Los Angeles freeway, as young people emerge from stalled cars to snap, tap, step, and leap in a glorious production number, “Another Day of Sun.” As traffic finally begins to move, Seb finds himself stuck behind an oblivious, texting Mia. He blasts his horn and pulls out impatiently past her. She flips him the bird. You can tell these kids are meant for each other.
They meet, and meet again, and suddenly they’re in love. Gosling and Stone have been there before (the 2011 romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love, and the ’40s crime drama Gangster Squad in 2013), so they know their way around each other, and the chemistry between them is palpable. Neither of them is a dancer on the level of Astaire and Rogers, but they’re no slouches either, and it’s a pleasure to watch them drift and strut and bend. And Chazelle adheres to the dictum laid down by Astaire, that the dance numbers be filmed unbroken, always showing the dancers in full, from head to foot. There’s none of that cheap cutaway trickery that made a travesty of the dance numbers in a movie like Chicago. What you see here is the real goods, and even with modest imperfections, it’s winning.
La La Land wears its influences lovingly, from the opening Cinemascope credit to the Technicolor pastels and brights that bathe its scenes in nostalgia. Flashes can crop up at any moment to trigger glimpses of Casablanca, or the dance in the park from The
Bandwagon, or the planetarium in Rebel Without a Cause. A poster of Ingrid Bergman over Mia’s bed is a reminder to today’s hopefuls that you may be better than the great movie stars of the past, but you’ll never be as good.
Chazelle starts off with that exuberant freeway dance number, but he doesn’t stay committed to the classic form. The movie seems to go for stretches forgetting that it’s a musical — music is always a part of it, but not always in the An American in Paris tradition of breaking into production numbers at regular intervals.
The story moves through love and loss, triumphs and disappointments. Seb’s dream of a jazz club gets beaten down, and he takes a job as a keyboardist with a pop group led by an old friend, played by the charismatic John Legend. Mia loses heart, abandons her quest, and goes home. That’s not the end of it, of course, and there are plenty of highs yet to come, but it’s a warning: Things don’t always work out the way you think, or hope, or dream. — Jonathan Richards
Swing time: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling