A couple of East Coasters, not out of school for a decade, have captured the magic of the Hollywood Dream factory in a way that has not been seen, much less heard, in an eternity. Just as “The Artist” reflected the memory of the early days of the film business before sound came along to change everything, “La La Land” pays tribute to the golden age of musicals while updating them to contemporary days. If you have not already seen this film, and you are sitting there reading these comments, what the hell? You could use the few minutes this takes to read to stand in line and get your tickets for what is going to be one of the best movie experiences of your year. No spoilers here, this movie is terrific.
Writer director Damien Chazelle and his musical partner Justin Hurwitz have found the heart of a 50’s musical in 2016 Los Angeles. Starting with a throwback version of the Summit Entertainment logo and expanding the screen to Cinemascope before any footage is run, we feel like we are in for a real studio experience. The dazzling song and dance number on the Freeway overpass that starts the film is choreographed with vigor and whimsy. Angelenos have been known to leave their cars in a traffic snarl like the one shown here, but never to move rhythmically atop their own vehicles much less those of their fellow Sig-Alert victims(Non-residents will have to look that one up). When the back door of a box truck is thrown up and a latin combo playing jazz infused dance music is already in full swing, you know that this is a fantasy that takes itself with a grain of salt but also with a good deal of conviction. The fact that it is capped off by the usual L.A. driver salute to his fellow travelers just tells you that this is not a form to be locked away in the past.
The clever lyrics to Hurwitz’s songs are provided by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. If you listen carefully you can here both bravado and wistfulness in the same tune. The story concerns two dreamers who find one another with some difficulty in the grind that is trying to make it in the business of this company town. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a talented jazz pianist struggling to survive by playing music gigs that are far below his talent. Emma Stone is the aspiring actress who makes a living with her nose pressed right up against the window of her dream, as a barista at the coffee house on the Warner Brothers lot. That setting provides multiple opportunities for this to be both a backstage musical and a more straightforward narrative singing story. The sets sometimes mimic the locations used throughout the film. The choices of which must have been influenced by a dozen other movies with Hollywood history.
Angel’s Flight has not been operational for a couple of years and since it’s restoration in 1996, it has been closed down on and off a few times. Never mind that this funicular doesn’t really operate, this is a movie about lovers in Los Angeles, and we need to believe. There is of course no way that Stone’s character Mia can run across the city from the Westside to South Pasadena to meet Sebastian at the Rialto, or that the Rialto is permanently closed, again, this is a movie where your fantasy counts more than a trivia thing like physics. The sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory plays out like the Gene Kelly envisioned ballet from “That’s Entertainment” or “An American in Paris”. In fact at one point in the film, Gosling practically dances with a prop street light, evoking the ghost of Kelly in this film.
Chazelle manages the tricky feat of having his cake and eating it as well. The star crossed love affair both fails and succeeds through the magic of musical story telling. While jazz style music may not at first seem a natural fit for a Hollywood Musical, the director finds a number of ways to make it work. Interestingly enough, there is even a number that betrays Sebastian’s ideals and leaves Mia nonplussed, while still being entertaining and valid. Just like Mia, we are not quite sure how to take the moment, but we are also swept up in it. John Legend stretches whatever acting chops he aspires to as a jazz musician that knows how to make that career work, and he wants to take Sebastian along for the ride.
Two years ago, I made “Whiplash” my favorite film of 2014. Chazelle wrote and directed that film as well and the whole milieu of jazz music came to life in a completely different fashion. That movie was frenetic and shot with a style that seems fitting to the music it emphasized. Even though this movie uses the same kind of music, the direction here is fluid and models the graceful dance moves of people like Kelly, Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. The camera follows our two lovers slowly as they walk across “Suicide Bridge” at night. The slow pan from inside the car,across the Rialto Theater after it has closed does a subtle but effective job of indicating an important transition in the story. The camera glides and pirouettes just as the actors do in their dance scenes with phantasmagoric images of Los Angeles swirl in the background.
No one will mistake the two leads for professional singers but their voices are pure and sincere and work wonders at achingly evoking the desire on their parts for their dreams to come true. The hundreds of dancers employed in the big numbers and the musicians that play in the clubs and on stage are all excellent. He has only a small part near the end of the film, but Tom Everett Scott reminded me of an adult version of the character that you are most likely to know him from, another jazz enthusiast at that. The film is a love letter to movie musicals and a great movie musical in itself. It is the opposite of the line that Gosling says at one point, “It’s Los Angeles, where they worship everything and value nothing.” The movie respects but does not deitize the films of the past and it values every contribution those movies made. “La La Land” is likely to be my favorite film of the year, if you see it and experience it the way I did, I suspect your feelings will be the same.