[NOTE: This is a repost of our review from the North American premiere at Telluride. La La Land enters limited release this weekend, December 9th]
Damien Chazelle turned his Oscar-winning indie goodwill for Whiplash into an old-fashioned star-driven musical. That itself is rare, but that this musical, La La Land, is an original and not an adaptation of a beloved play or opera, is extremely gutsy. Many of the original songs fail to register immediately, but the fancy footwork of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone coupled with stunning visuals and set pieces make the film a delicate and slightly frustrating delight—and then Chazelle absolute stuns with a completely divine third act that’s so perfect it wraps you up in clouds of stardust and ushers you out the door enraptured. Much like Gosling and Stone’s relationship in the film, there are some stumbles and missteps, but they ultimately become the best versions of themselves, and that’s exactly how La La Land builds momentum to its emotionally earned conclusion.
Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist who desires to own his own club but is stuck playing jingles at a restaurant for a manager (J.K. Simmons) who isn’t keen on his free-thinking dips into free jazz and away from the background recognizables. (Simmons, who won an Oscar for Whiplash as a sadistic jazz instructor whose catchphrase “not my tempo!” is translated to La La Land as “not my set list!”) And Stone is Mia, a college dropout who’s pursuing a career as an actress and working in achingly close vicinity to the actual stars, as a barista on the Warner Bros. studio lot. Her auditions are routinely interrupted in tactless ways, such as a food order being brought in mid-tears, or casting directors who can’t ever bother to look up from their phones.
Sebastian and Mia don’t meet cute, they meet mean. First in a traffic jam, where a script-reading Mia receives the blaring of Sebastian’s car horn followed by a passive aggressive pass and glare. Then, after leaving a douchey Hollywood party in the hills to find her car towed, Mia wanders down into Hollywood (in a glorious tracking shot alongside one of Los Angeles’ most famous murals) and is drawn into a restaurant when she hears Sebastian’s delicate key strokes from the street. She stands aghast at his melody, witnesses him being canned for free-styling and attempts to tell him how beautiful it was, but he walks through her like she isn’t even there. Needless to say, eventually, their paths meet again and eventually sparks begin to fly.
The above is the first act of the film and I struggled with it. There are a few early musical numbers—one immensely choreographed traffic jam with many singers and a second getting-ready-for-a-party-with-the-roommates jam—that are so earnest and bright it felt like a Target ad. The songs are about the weather always being sunny and the same in Los Angeles and that you never know when you’ll get discovered at a party. They certainly set the scene of the city, but Chazelle uses LA locations so smartly, those song set-ups feel a little bloated in their scope. It’s not until Gosling and Stone sit on a park bench overlooking Los Angeles at sunset and then begin tap-dancing that La La Land finds the right tempo. That’s La La Land‘s first show-stopping number. And there are many that will follow.
At the time of the traffic jam smiles and sashays and the wide-eyed roommates who all crave stardom, I thought that I struggled with the musical pieces because they were so cheerful and fake. But the moments that land, after that dazzling fleet-footed number in the hills, are because they are the musical responses that come directly from our lovers, and thus, are true to their personalities. There are a handful of moments where I would perhaps declare “not my tempo!” to Chazelle, but never when they come directly from Gosling and Stone. Sebastian’s natural tune is a melancholy and wounded piano number (the very one that seduced her from the street) and Mia’s is a brave ballad. Together, they make great music, and Stone and Gosling are a sure-footed pair (they dance more than they sing), with their lived-in and natural chemistry.
You do want to see this couple of dreaming artists ascend to the stars and keep their souls in tact. And Chazelle dreamingly takes them there—only to bring them back to Earth with the type of relationship woes that such old-fashioned romances never show.
Again, Sebastian has to play tunes that aren’t his own (to pay the bills, he joins a sort of big band—R&B fusion group, The Messengers, that strains credibility in its immense popularity, despite being fronted by John Legend). He is successful but compromised. And Mia feels like a failure as an actress. This is the exact crossroads for the characters where Chazelle—who had already flexed an immense visual muscle throughout La La Land—glides into a daring and beautiful third act. He starts by giving Gosling a Stanley Kowalski moment and then Stone receives and nails a song that the film so desperately needed, an instant classic, downbeat and true to both Mia and Sebastian.
“Audition” beautifully melds Mia’s ballad sensibilities with Sebastian’s melancholic tempo. That fusion of character truths then segues into a dizzying double denouement where Chazelle, almost entirely visually, combines Frank Tashlin-inspired Cinemascope pans, with silhouette sets and dreamy sepia-toned home videos, set to Sebastian’s minimalist piano keys. By giving both Stone and Gosling double back to back home runs, set to their character’s defined tempos, La La Land sticks a sure-footed landing that made me want to cheer. This journey had some fits and starts, but the destination is pure movie magic.
It was a very interesting shift for a film that initially pushed me away with the larger, more classical musical pieces. Gosling, Stone, Chazelle, cinematographer Linus Sandgren, and composer Justin Hurwitz, were able to pull me closer by defining a specific tempo and visual template for both individuals in this relationship and then melded them together into something selfless and hopelessly romantic. It’s in this character arena where Chazelle’s musical strokes excel (and Stone is absolutely radiant). There are nice homages to old-school musicals throughout La La Land, but his true artistic voice comes through in the shining duo numbers. And with Stone and Gosling, what a duo we receive.