It’s been decades since a studio produced the kind of colorful musical fantasy that “La La Land” so affectionately salutes, but writer-director Damien Chazelle is the guy for the job. Before his breakout drama “Whiplash,” Chazelle made the 2009 microbudget “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” a gentle, scrappy, song-and-dance tale of an aspiring jazz trumpeter and the woman who falls for him. That movie now looks like the dry run for this grander spectacle, his third feature — another story about singing, dancing lovers struggling with modern concerns. Carved from the legacies of Vincente Minnelli, Jacques Demy, and so many others, “La La Land” is magically in tune with its reference points even as falls a few notes short of their greatness.
No matter how obvious its antecedents, “La La Land” makes it clear that this film is a serious upgrade. As the opening black-and-white Cinemascope screen opens up to glorious color, the movie kicks off an opening number set in the middle of a deadlocked Los Angeles freeway. Chazelle’s camera spins around hordes of bodies smiling and flipping along the road… until the sprightly song comes to a close, and they shrink back into their vehicles. That oscillation continues throughout, as “La La Land” juts between everyday occurrences and lively outbursts without slowing down.
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By the time jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and wannabe actress Mia (Emma Stone) tap dance from atop the Griffith Observatory, “La La Land” has laid out its charm: It’s a love-hate portrait of urban sprawl and the big-city dreamers drawn to its possibilities. But above all, it’s high-concept pastiche, filled with beautiful people, beautiful movement, and beautiful colors.
Alternately stilted and smarmy, Sebastian is unable to restrain himself to holiday classics at a drab restaurant gig, gets fired, and left to contemplate his dreams of opening a music club of his own. He’s trailed, and eventually entranced, by Mia, and once their bond develops over song the pair’s chemistry really takes off. It’s a charming setup that veers from a house party to the Warner Bros. lot and eventually to an old movie house playing “Rebel Without a Cause,” wherein the projector hits a snag just as they lock lips. The beats are obvious, but the breezy romanticism remains endearing.
However, “La La Land” strains as it attempts to engage on a deeper level. As Sebastian launches an ill-advised attempt to join a touring rock band led by the suave Keith (John Legend), Mia does her best to comprehend her lover’s obsession. While the movie sidesteps the cultural implications of white characters fetishizing a sound with black roots, it does allow the only prominent black character to provide a reality check. Legend bluntly reminds Sebastian — and, by proxy, the movie itself — that music must evolve to stay relevant. “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re a such a traditionalist?” Keith asks. It’s not a question deeply explored as the drama shifts to the couple’s rockier times. Unlike the great Demy pictures it wants to emulate,”La La Land” is better on the surface.
But, oh, those surfaces. As “Whiplash” proved, Chazelle’s greatest skills stem from his ability to capture the physicality of music. Choreographer Mandy Moore gives her two main performers plenty of wondrous moments that should please any diehard Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers fans, and Chazelle even one-ups the Astaire-Rogers tradition by positioning our heroes in zero gravity.
It’s all quite pleasing to the eye, but the accompanying soundtrack comes up short. Chazelle regular Justin Hurwitz’s compositions color in the lines with ebullient but indistinct songs filled with blaring trumpets and jumpy rhythms. The exception is “City of Stars,” a gorgeous, minor-key piano ballad that evokes the broken dreams and big-city solitude at the movie’s heart. Mia’s own journey, which finds her attempting to write her own play and face-planting, speaks to familiar laments about the misleading promises of a dream factory that’s readymade for disappointment.
At its best, “La La Land” probes the irony of its existence, celebrating the greatness of a bygone era in the context of changing times. “That’s LA,” Sebastian concludes. “They worship everything and they value nothing.” But that doesn’t stop him from getting fired up about the underlying power of classic jazz. “You can’t hear it,” he implores Mia. “You have to see it.” To that end, “La La Land” succeeds in making its sweet imagery sing, particularly with the sensational finale. In a wordless explosion of lights and shadows, Chazelle reignites the movie with fresh context that forces it to get real. Here, he arrives at the wrenching conclusion that even the most vibrant fantasy eventually must fade to black.
“La La Land” premieres at the Venice Film Festival and will be released theatrically December 2.