Viewers who saw Damien Chazelle’s relentless, brutal and intermittently brilliant Whiplash back in 2014 may find themselves surprised at the writer and director’s latest film. Shot in the whimsical, highly saturated visual style of Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort and featuring several spectacular song-and-dance numbers alluding to MGM classics like Singin’ in the Rain, La La Land is an unabashedly retro, rapturously romantic movie musical. Tonally and aesthetically Whiplash and La La Land seem like total opposites, but the two films share a profound sense of empathy for and insight into the experience of being a struggling artist.
Following a rousing opening number staged in the most mundane of settings (a crowded LA freeway) La La Land introduces us to its two leads. Emma Stone plays Mia, a barista from Boulder City, Nevada who quit college and moved to Hollywood six years ago to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian (he prefers Seb), a stubbornly traditional jazz pianist trying to scrape together enough money to buy his own jazz bar. Refreshingly, Chazelle opts to devote most of the first act to fleshing out his two main characters rather than rushing straight into romance.
Stone is hilarious and heartbreaking in a montage showing her character going on a series of unsuccessful auditions that establish Mia’s genuine talent as well as her crumbling self-confidence in the face of constant indifference and rejection. Gosling’s early scenes opposite Rosemarie DeWitt and J.K. Simmons underline how far he is from achieving his goals and how little the world cares about his principled and passionate defence of traditional jazz. This careful grounding of Mia and Seb in a mundane and disappointing reality serves to counterbalance the fantasy and heightened unreality of La La Land’s musical set pieces.
There’s a playful antagonism to Mia and Seb’s first big number together, a Mandy Moore choreographed tap routine set on a hill overlooking the city at sunset. Stone and Gosling may not have perfect technique but it’s still a pleasure to watch them dance together because the two actors have such infectiously wonderful chemistry. You root for their characters to be together based on that chemistry alone and share in their blissful happiness as they fall in love. You also share their pain when differing career trajectories become a source of conflict and threaten to tear the couple apart.
Every minute of La La Land is a delight but (sticking to the pattern he established in Whiplash) Chazelle saves the best for last. To describe the film’s magical, melancholy, intensely moving final sequence would be to spoil it, suffice it to say that audiences can expect something truly special in those last twenty minutes. Despite its twirling, colourful, CinemaScope gorgeousness La La Land ultimately reflects the same worldview and authorial voice as Whiplash. It’s a story about artistic ambition as much as romantic love, and all the more poignant for it.
The original songs composed by frequent Chazelle collaborator Justin Hurwitz (with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) are a huge part of La La Land’s singular appeal. All are winners but the lovely, wistful City of Stars is particularly memorable (seriously, try getting the melody out of your head afterwards) and both Stone and Gosling turn out to have surprisingly sweet singing voices. Costume designer Mary Zophres also deserves serious recognition for the film’s utterly ravishing costumes, which manage to be both nostalgic and thoroughly modern.