I want to live in Los Angeles. Not the real LA mind you, but the glittering jewel of a city in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. The city often gets a bad rap. There are the oft-mentioned reasons: smog, extreme traffic, insufficient public transportation, crime, gangs, the pseudo-spiritualism, the unchecked vanity, the obsession with celebrities. It kind of seems like everyone is trying to make it into show business there. Easier said than done. It wasn’t nicknamed the city of broken dreams for nothing. And yet millions choose to call LA home. La La Land makes me understand why.
The city isn’t famous for its culture. Yet Chazelle sees the beauty within. La La Land is a practically a tourism ad making use of many real Los Angeles landmarks. It’s only a matter of time before the Hollywood location tour pops up. There‘s Griffith Park, the Observatory there, Angels Flight Funicular, Colorado Street Bridge, the Rialto theater, Hermosa Beach Pier. The “You Are the Star” Mural at Hollywood & Wilcox provides a backdrop. Each location becomes an enchanting setting. Anyone who has ever found themselves in LA’s nightmarish bumper to bumper gridlock would beg to differ. However, even a traffic jam seems like a wondrous delight. In the film’s opening scene, Chazelle makes congestion on the 110-105 interchange exactly that. Again I emphasize that this is not a set and the experience is all the more galvanizing because of it. As the characters slowly emerge from the protective confines of their metals cells, they begin to sing “Another Day of Sun”. Gradually getting on top of their cars in a rapturous display of dancing by choreographer Mandy Moore (not the pop singer turned actress). It’s a fantastic way to start off the picture. It’s so captivating, I was overcome with emotion. The way it harnesses joy out of the everyday is magical.
First and foremost, La la Land is a love story. Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) pursue each other. They’ve got palpable chemistry. This is actually the third time the two have been on screen together Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad were the others. Emma Stone is such a pleasure. As the jittery aspiring actress waiting for her big break, she is an anxious bundle of charm. Ryan Gosling plays a confident but frustrated jazz pianist. He dreams of opening his own club but earns a living by playing Xmas songs in a cocktail bar. Deep down he prefers the traditions of the past while being forced to adopt the affectations of the modern era. John Legend is his friend Keith that looks to the future. “Jazz is constantly evolving,” Keith argues. Neither side is wrong according to the film. It’s not being true to yourself that’s the problem. Mia supports this idea. Sebastian accepts a well-paying job playing backup electronic keyboards for Keith’s commercially successful band. “Did you like it?” Sebastian asks of Mia after a very well-attended concert of jazz-pop fusion. “Yes, but did you?” she responds.
They’re a pair out of some long lost Hollywood musical of the 1950s. In a previous generation, Ryan would be played by Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. Gosling is certainly not a proficient singer/dancer like Kelly. Emma Stone can’t vocalize like Judy Garland either. Stone has what you might call a delicate whisper of a voice. Damien Chazelle is aware they aren’t up to that standard, but that’s OK. In some ways, their inadequacies are part of their appeal. There is a lack of pretense and polish to their numbers that actually makes this more accessible and less artificial. When they burst into song, the expression appears almost naturally – an outpouring of their passion already existing on the screen. What they miss in singing ability, they more than overcompensate for with feeling. Those overly produced pitch-perfect confections on the TV show Glee may be flawless from a sonic standpoint, but they often forget the human element that gives the composition feeling and soul. When these individuals croon they reach for your heart first. Your brain might tell you they aren’t accomplished vocalists, but your heart tells you they’re in love. That is what ultimately matters in a story about human emotion.
We already knew director Damien Chazelle was talented. His last feature Whiplash garnered 5 Oscar nominations and 3 wins, including one for its star J. K. Simmons. He briefly appears in a cameo here. However following up success can often be an intimidating task for a newcomer. Damien Chazelle tackled a daunting project. Musicals aren’t common these days. Oh sure there’s Disney’s animated flicks and the occasional Broadway adaptation, but most younger moviegoers are unfamiliar with the idea. When actors break into song it can feel corny. An indifferent viewer rejects the idea with disbelief. How do you stage a production grounded in the past but present it to today’s jaded audiences? What Damien Chazelle pulls off in La La Land is nothing less than miraculous.
In La La Land the “City of Angels” is reimagined through the glorious sheen of the late 40s/early 50s Hollywood musical. For examples, watch An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, or The Band Wagon to see what I mean. What makes Chazelle’s 3rd feature so incredible is how brilliantly he understand how to reference history. He skillfully recontextualizes the vernacular of the American musical for the modern age. The exquisite score by Justin Hurwitz, elaborate production design by David Wasco, those costumes by Mary Zophres, the Technicolor, the romance – La La Land‘s aesthetic borrows from history but the time period and the characters are rooted firmly in contemporary society. 2016 is all here: cell phones, Hybrid vehicles, the part-time job as a barista. Chazelle makes our present era seem so much more magical. There is an exuberant quality I haven’t seen recently. Mia and Sebastian radiate sweetness too. This uncorrupted pair shares a purity. You want them to be together. Their emotion is real. You fall in love. This why we go to the cinema. If I may paraphrase a famous expression once said by Humphrey Bogart, La La Land is the stuff that [movies] are made of. It is sublime.