Lively, colorful, and sweet, “La La Land” tries old and new things together to entertain us. While clearly influenced by numerous classic musical films such as “An American in Paris” (1951) and “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), the movie is as fresh and vibrant as recent modern musical films like “Once” (2006) and “Sing Street” (2016), and it is an utter pleasure to watch how it delightfully and skillfully dances on the line between fantasy and reality along with its two engaging stars. Sure, this is indeed a fairy tale, but it has lots of heart and spirit while also grounded in enough realism, and we gladly go along with its musical exuberance.
The movie instantly sets the tone during its opening sequence. As the camera passes along a long line of traffic jam on an LA highway for a while, bored and frustrated drivers begin to sing one by one in broad daylight, and then there comes a vigorous and rapturous moment of song and dance, which is fluidly and dynamically presented via the effortlessly continuous camera work around vehicles and performers on the screen.
Right after this awesome beginning, we are introduced to the two main characters of the movie: Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Like any young aspiring performers in Hollywood, Mia has been trying as much as she can while earning her living as an on-studio barista, but her dream still seems to be out of her reach no matter how much she prepares for those countless auditions which do not promise anything but a tiny hope for career breakthrough. During one audition, she tries really hard to impress the casting director, but then her attempt is interrupted by a sudden phone call, and that leads to her another frustrating moment to endure.
Like Mia, Sebastian has been driven by his own dream which is not fulfilled yet. As a jazz pianist, he has been hoping to own a jazz club for him and his music someday, but his situation is not exactly good at present. As implied from his conversation with his sister played by Rosemarie DeWitt, he lost a considerable amount of money due to some scam, and that means he has to take any job available to him regardless of whether he likes it or not. His recent job is playing platitudinous Christmas season music at some posh restaurant, and J.K. Simmons is amusing in his brief appearance as a restaurant manager who will not tolerate any change in the playlist.
The first chapter of the movie shows us how Mia and Sebastian come to acquaint themselves with each other via a series of your average Meet Cute moments. During their first encounter, they briefly pass by each other as total strangers who happen to be driving along the same route. When she later comes into the very restaurant where he works, she instantly recognizes him from the distance, and that happens to be when he decides that enough is enough and then plays the music he wants to play. She is impressed by his music, but their second encounter ends up being as brief and disagreeable as their first one.
Several months later, they encounter each other again at a party where she is a guest and he is one of hired musicians. As they talk with each other, they feel more of the mutual attraction between them, and we get a series of charming scenes with each own different flavor. There is a lovely evening song and dance scene reminiscent of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ movies, and then there comes an equally romantic scene unfolded at the Griffith Observatory, which was one of the main locations in “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955). With deliberately old-fashioned touches popping up here and there, these moments may not feel that realistic on the surface, but they do feel real as music and choreography convey much more than mere words, and we cannot help but be enthralled as watching our young lead characters falling more in love with each other.
As encouraged by their growing relationship, Mia and Sebastian keep pursuing each own dream. While she decides that she should go on her own way via a single performer play based on her personal life, he decides to compromise a bit, so he comes to accept an offer from his friend Keith (John Legend), whose band music absolutely sounds nothing like the more old-fashioned jazz music Sebastian cherishes. Not so surprisingly, Mia and Sebastian begin to feel distant to each other as they focus more on their respective careers, and then there comes an eventual moment of painful realization for both of them.
This is indeed a typical show business romance tale which is inherently predictable to the bone, but Chazelle and his technical crew keep throwing entertaining elements to savor. The composer Justin Hurwitz’s score deftly shifts itself between different musical modes, and the songs written by Hurwitz and others are enjoyable while also functioning well as effective narrative materials. The cinematographer Linus Sandgren did a commendable job of establishing a vivid, colorful atmosphere amidst the various locations around LA, and, thanks to him and the editor Tom Cross, every beat and movement during the musical sequences in the film is palpably conveyed to us without any sense of interruption or confinement. This is particularly exemplified well by when Mia and her fellow young actresses let themselves swept by the excited atmosphere of a party they attend. While everybody is having a fun at the party, Sandgren’s camera sweeps around here and there as if it were another guest, and this exhilarating sequence eventually culminates to a dizzy visual moment to behold.
Like any good musical movies about romance would, “La-La Land” depends a lot on the chemistry between its two lead performers, and they do deliver that as much as demanded. Since I came to notice her through “Zombieland” (2009) and “Easy A” (2010), Emma Stone has always radiated her breezy star presence in the following films including “The Help” (2011) and “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (2014), and she is more prominent than ever here in a lovable performance which will garner her an Oscar nomination in next year (She already won the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival in this year, by the way). In addition to singing and dancing as well as required, Stone fully inhabits her archetype role, and she is simply fantastic during one showstopper moment which solely depends on her acting and singing talent. At that point during my viewing, I wrote in my mental note: ““Les Misérables” (2012) has nothing on this.”
Exuding his natural easygoing charm, Ryan Gosling, who has recently shown more of his lightweight side with “The Big Short” (2015) and “The Nice Guys” (2016), stably holds and supports his co-star during their scenes, and their chemistry on the screen is particularly evident during the climactic musical sequence which feels, I dare to say, less redundant than the similar one in “An American in Paris” (1951). Although they do not say anything as bouncing from one spot to another, their physical movements and nuances show and tell everything we need for sensing what is really exchanged between their characters, and that is why their last moment is not only poignant but also somehow optimistic.
In comparison to the director/writer Damien Chazelle’s previous film “Whiplash” (2014), which was one of the best films I saw in 2015, “La-La Land” is a less intense work in comparison, but its deft mastery of music and image confirms again that Chazelle is a very talented filmmaker. Although his story stumbles a bit around its last act and I noticed that most of the supporting characters in the movie are more or less than background details, the overall result is filled with enough charm and energy to compensate for these notable narrative flaws which thankfully remain to be minor problems at least during its running time, and his two performers’ charismatic performance certainly boosts the movie further to many high points to remember.
Musical films have been less frequent in these days compared to those golden years of Hollywood musicals, and “La La Land” joyously reminds us that the genre is still alive and well, and I enjoyed how the movie brings out new things while recognizing old things. Maybe it is a mere piece of entertainment as fluffy as cotton candy, but its sweet, jubilant spirit is infectious to say the least, and we definitely need more of such good musical films which can excite and rapture us like this superlative work. After all, that’s entertainment, you know.