Damien Chazelle has figured out innovative ways to marry music with film in a way that no other director has dared try in the 21st century and it permeates every frame of his sophomore feature La La Land. Let’s go back for a moment to the final scene of his masterful debut Whiplash. It culminated in a virtuoso drum performance from Miles Teller showing his skills from his dictatorial instructor J.K. Simmons that left a collective smile on the audience’s faces. That frown upside down feeling is immediately resurrected in the opening sequence here, as dozens of citizens stuck in L.A. traffic burst into a gleeful song and dance number. The message is loud and clear: writer/director Chazelle has been given the freedom to make a full-on old Hollywood style musical and he doesn’t shy away from the leeway.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who works on the Warner Bros lot as a barista as she hustles from one despairing audition to the next. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who’s playing restaurants and pining to open his own club as he laments the demise of the genre he adores. The two meet briefly and not romantically on that aforementioned Southern California freeway and keep bumping into each other. It takes them awhile to recognize that they adore one another. In Chazelle’s world, that elevation of their courtship involves some amazingly choreographed numbers. A particular highlight is one that occurs at the famed Griffith Observatory.
La La Land tracks the couple as their professional lives rise and fall. Mia is determined to get her one woman play off the ground. Sebastian joins a jazz fusion band led by John Legend and even though he’s not wild with their sound, it’s a steady paycheck. The picture coasts for a good portion of its running time on its harmonious relationship of the leads.
Yet real life eventually causes the needle to skip on their joyous record of happiness. It is then that those issues Mia and Sebastian experience allow the two actors playing them to stretch their dramatic chords. This is the third time Gosling and Stone have been together on screen (the others being Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad) and their chemistry is already well established and rock solid. There’s a final audition scene involving Stone in which she left the crowd silent with her voice.
When we reach the third act, the decades old Hollywood rules in this genre of happily ever after don’t necessarily apply. Chazelle fashions a what if segment that is both inspiring and a bit heartbreaking, all while keeping us in tune with the boldness of taking something old and making it new. And you’ll be smiling again when the fade out occurs.
***1/2 (out of four)