There was never any doubt that I was supposed to like this movie. Despite being a caucasian, sports-loving, beef-eating, Southern Baptist, Republican heterosexual male, I think it says something about me that I rank Gene Kelly right up there with Albert Einstein, Joe DiMaggio and Ronald Reagan as “Dudes I’d Love To Be Just Like.” An American in Paris and On the Town and Brigadoon… Man, but THOSE were musicals! From the minute I saw the first trailer for La La Land, I knew this picture had a chance to win me over in a way that Chicago and Into the Woods and other such turn-of-the-Millenium musicals haven’t. The danger in finally getting to see it was that I would have set myself up with unmeetable expectations - that after the whirlwind of praise and awards the movie has already received, there was no way it could be as good as my subconscious demanded it be.
Oh, but all that worrying was for nothing! La La Land is an absolute, total, incredible triumph, and deserving of any and every accolade the industry can think to throw at it. From the very first song in the opening set piece, I was totally won over, and I knew it would take a total train wreck over the subsequent two hours to change that opinion. Okay, sure, Ryan Gosling is NOT Gene Kelly, and Emma Stone is NOT Cyd Charisse, but writer/director Damien Chazelle just may very well be some sort of reincarnated, melded version of Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli.
Set in Los Angeles, La La Land (Chazelle’s follow-up to his very impressive Whiplash) tells the year-long story of a blossoming romance between Mia (Stone), an aspiring actress and Sebastian (Gosling), a talented but struggling jazz pianist, whose paths cross amidst the world of Hollywood moviemaking and downtown music clubs. They first meet in a road-rage incident, re-meet by chance later, find common ground, find love, and then… well, that would be telling.
In terms of a bittersweet love story narrative and old fashioned tap-dancing choreography, La La Land offers nothing that we didn’t see in those glorious musicals from the 40s and 50s (even down to the “Presented in CinemaScope” banner that opens the film), but when something is done so brilliantly and executed so perfectly, it can feel like the most refreshing and innovative thing in the world, and this is exactly the kind of feeling this movie evokes. There’s a distinct “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore!” vibe here. It’s true that it’s a big, bright, colorful, ambitious movie musical, reminiscent of releases from Hollywood’s Golden Age, but the beauty of it is how that vibe is used to tell a story that is so obviously set in our own world. I mean, c'mon - Fred Astaire never danced with Ginger Rogers on an Interstate overpass! The soft-focus, shot-on-real-film visuals take you on a whimsical, yet at times heartbreaking ride, populated by characters with hopes and dreams, nimble feet and magnificently contoured faces, that provides exactly the kind of cinematic escapism for which lovers of musicals yearn.
In terms of casting, Chazelle could not have got it more spot on. Being that original stars Miles Teller and Emma Watson dropped out at different points of pre-production, these depar-tures might very well have been evidence of the ghost of Busby Berkeley guiding things, as Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling create a pair of characters, and a chemistry, that are far, far greater than the sum of their parts. These two actors are currently (arguably) at the very top of their game, both serious triple-threats with enough charisma to charm even the most cynical of viewers. As Mia, Stone typifies the spirit of a struggling actress and part-time barista, filled with that eternal hope of a big break, but also nuanced enough to break our hearts with every cold rejection. As Sebastian, Gosling gives what is probably my favorite performance of his career, carrying himself with a delicate swagger that is irresistible to the camera. There is no doubt that the musical numbers could have been sung with more precision and gusto by other, more outlandish singing performers, but to have replaced these two would have been to sacrifice the heart and charm of the film. Though both are clearly immensely talented, the delightful rough edges of both Stone and Gosling’s performances are what make them so human and endearing. That slight imperfection helps me believe there really is an alternate universe where every day, everywhere is a musical, and perhaps someday, I’ll get to go there.
Chazelle’s graceful camera work is thrilling, his timing impeccably tied to sumptuous images that are as delightful as the leads on screen. In collaboration with his Whiplash musical collaborator Justin Hurwitz, the film’s score is the heartbeat of the work, pulsing with energy and emotion. With songs that feel like standards, tied to graceful yet occasionally cheeky choreographed numbers, the film is unabashedly a musical in the traditional sense. I saw the movie twenty-fours hours before writing this review and have already Google Music-streamed the soundtrack half a dozen times - the tunes are that endearing.
As if anyone doubted Chazelle’s talent after Whiplash, La La Land firmly establishes him as a filmmaker to watch over the coming years. He has crafted a highly personal film that speaks not only to our sense of romance, but also to that little part of everybody’s heart (and yes, everybody has that “little part” SOMEWHERE inside) that longs to break out in song when the situation calls for it. A captivating treasure of a film, La La Land will make your heart and your head sing in praise, and maybe even tap a soft-shoe for a couple of steps. I simply cannot wait to see it again.