The big Hollywood musical is alive and well. Sure, it’s an endangered species, but Damien Chazelle’s vibrant La La Land is about as fine a specimen as you can find. Chosen by Toronto’s filmgoing horde as the best film at TIFF this year, La La Land is a throwback tour de force.
Chazelle, the director of the critically acclaimed stressed-out drummer flick Whiplash, has raised his game with a paean to the Golden Age of musicals. Harking back to the days of Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly and the ladies Gene made movies with, La La Land is a sumptuous reinvention of the days when people on the street just burst into song, and men and women were singing dancing triple threat gazelles.
Emma Stone is Mia, an aspiring actress working as a barista on a film studio lot. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz purist stuck playing Christmas carols at a middle-of-the-road piano bar. His dream is to open his own jazz club, but he’s too busy railing against a world that’s forgotten the greats to do something great himself.
The two meet in the middle of a typical L.A. traffic jam commute, but this one opens far from typical. Everyone leaps out of their cars for a big production number, shattering our mundane reality exactly the way that people say makes musicals so ridiculous. It is frenetic, and trying for fun with a capital “F” just a little too hard, but Chazelle makes his intentions plain from the get-go, leaning into a bold, brassy number to proclaim musicals are back, friend. Fortunately for everyone, he doesn’t go all glitz and Baz Luhrmann overkill. Instead, after two big production numbers, La La Land works hard to scale down, building a beautiful and intimate portrait of a romance that can never fully connect.
Both Mia and Seb are constantly being sabotaged by the world around them, and themselves. They keep bumping into each other all over the place—that traffic jam, in a bar, at a party—and each time is a little more fractious than the last. Catching Seb trapped in an 80s cover band is the most amusing, Mia skewering Seb on his key-tar with a mocking singalong of Flock of Seagull’s “I Ran”. But once the two are alone, leaving the party in the gleaming magic hour dusk, their friction gives way to smouldering chemistry. Together they sing and dance and it’s immediately apparent they can bring out something wonderful in each other. Their courtship is magical and full of beautiful grace-notes, the highlight when they float into the stars inside a planetarium.
Together they push each other to strive for their dreams. But real life intrudes in ways that rarely happen in musicals. Mia decides to do her own one-woman show, but will anyone turn up? Seb puts his club plans on hold to go on tour with a much more successful, commercially inclined friend of his. La La Land taps into the new millennial angst, the dawning awareness that all your dreams won’t come true, or even if they do, there’s always a cost.
As the star-crossed lovers struggling to navigate the minefield of their own conflicting passions, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are both superb. They’re not as polished as the golden age performers of the forties and fifties, but they’re singing is honest and direct, and they’re up for a little tap when the moment arrives. Stone in particular is wonderful as an uncertain pre-star, torn by self-doubt and the denigrations of those around her, but a swirl of talent breaking through all the same. (I pegged Amy Adams for Oscar material earlier, but Stone’s got a damn good shot, too, and people are raving about Natalie Portman in Jackie, so another tough year to pick for the ladies.) Justin Hurwitz’s music is haunting and melancholic, and Linus Sandgren’s brilliant Technicolor cinematography (yes, Technicolor) is a shimmering evocation of Edward Hopper pastels.
Rather than an assemblage of show-pieces and bravura solos, La La Land is an intimate ode to things that could have been but don’t come to be, and how all our connections are transformative in some way. It’s joyous and sad, a moving story of what Tinseltown gives and takes away. Coming this holiday season, it won’t be a franchise expanding sci-fi epic. But La La Land is bound to be a smash hit, for the stars right here on earth.