It takes a lot of audacity to mount an old-fashioned Hollywood musical in these cynical times. Once a genre unto itself, usually a romantic story expressed in song and dance numbers (“All singing! All dancing!” the ads screamed), the movie musical has been devalued in the age of irony. Audiences who buy into zombies and skyscraper-sized aliens are unable to suspend their disbelief for people breaking out into song in the middle of their daily lives.
Only in Disney princess cartoons do characters sing their hearts out onscreen (which is OK, because they’re not, you know, real), or in a film set in a musical milieu, like Once, where the characters bond through performing together.
But Damien Chazelle’s masterful La La Land makes the movie musical sing again. And dance. And how! As dubious as you might find the idea of a modern musical starring actors—Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone—not previously known for their singing or dancing, this is one glorious joyride from start to finish. The stars are capable and appealing, the locations around greater Los Angeles County (including my hometown of Hermosa Beach) look as magical as any film set, and Chazelle finds exciting new ways to reinvent the genre at every turn.
The original musical score from composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul gives the movie its own upbeat, modern identity. Set in L.A., the story begins on a freeway during a traffic jam. As traffic slows to a halt, the overhead camera zeroes in on a woman driver who starts singing. She emerges from her car and starts dancing, with other motorists of all shapes, and colors (just like the population of L.A.) climbing out of their cars to join in. It’s a massive production number (“Another Day of Sun”) that makes brilliant use of the freeway structure and immobilized cars as dancing props.
When traffic starts up again, driver Mia (Stone) has a rude encounter with Sebastian (Gosling). She’s an aspiring actress going to work at a coffeeshop on a movie studio backlot, where she can be close to the auditions she’s always running off to. She shares a flat with three other hopeful actresses; after they drag her off to a party, she’s on her way home when she wanders into a piano bar where Seb is playing.
Now the movie switches to Seb’s story. He’s a jazz musician reduced to playing Christmas carols in the bar to fund his dream of opening his own jazz club one day. (J. K. Simmons—co-star of Chazelle’s last film, Whiplash—cameos as Seb’s deadpan boss.) Mia is drawn to a particularly hypnotic refrain Seb is playing, one that echoes throughout the story. Their next encounter also fizzles, but they begin circling into each other’s orbits as romance blossoms.
The rest is best left to the viewer to experience. The themes are universal—pursuing one’s dreams, staying true to oneself—but the storytelling is fresh. Mandy Moore’s choreography is outstanding, from that huge freeway number to Mia and Seb’s lovely tap duet as they start to fall in love. In a fabulous fantasy duet, they rise up into the starmap of the interior dome of Griffith Park Observatory, literally dancing with the stars.
Stone and Gosling have musical experience—she starred in a Cabaret revival on Broadway, he played multiple instruments (including piano) in an indie rock band. Chazelle chose to shoot their duets the old-fashioned way—in Cinemascope, in one take—and both performers are up to the challenge; their dancing is fluid and relaxed.
Using iconic L.A. landmarks and neighborhoods, like the venerable Lighthouse jazz club in Hermosa (and the beachfront and pier), Watts Towers, the Grand Central Market and the Angel’s Flight cable car, Chazelle creates a visual reverie on the City of Dreams, an L.A. that may only exist in the imagination. And while he stays true in spirit to classic musicals, Chazelle’s wistful, and poignant finale gives the movie an unexpected edge. La La Land is a virtuoso production that gives us all something to sing (and dance) about.
LA LA LAND
**** (out of four)
With Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and John Legend. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. A Lionsgate release. Rated PG-13. 126 minutes.