I enjoyed La La Land so much the first time I saw it, I immediately wanted to see it again, with a friend.
“I don’t like musicals,” she said.
“This isn’t a musical musical,” I replied.
I went on to explain that yes, there was singing and dancing. Yes, there was a certain lightness of spirit we tend to associate with musicals. But that lightness was accompanied by a sense of wistfulness, even melancholy. And while La La Land explicitly mimics the look of an old Technicolor classic (at one point, its central lovers go to a screening of Rebel Without a Cause and it’s hard to distinguish between the two films’ palettes), there’s also something breathtakingly fresh about it—it feels elegant and modern and cool.
It starts, of course, with the leads. Neither Ryan Gosling nor Emma Stone are particularly polished as singers and dancers, but they compensate by being two of the world’s most charming humans. That Rebel Without a Cause interlude is no accident, Gosling does have a touch of James Dean about him—his dreaminess comes with an edge. As for Stone, she has the most expressive eyes this side of Betty Davis.
The film starts with something of a show stopper. It’s a gloriously sunny day and we’re on a jammed LA freeway—which is to say, any freeway at any given moment in LA—and one bored woman starts singing, “Another Day of Sun.” Then she gets out of her car and others join her, jumping on their cars, dancing on their car roofs and gliding over Jersey walls. Down the freeway we go, until everyone is singing and dancing—a truck opens to reveal a junkyard band in the cargo cab—and the joyfulness is positively infectious. Then, just like that, the song ends, everyone gets back into their cars, and there’s only the hum of idling motors. But there’s one last sly joke on this cloudless day: The word WINTER flashes on the screen.
That’s when we first meet aspiring actress Mia (Stone), who’s in her car, trying to memorize a scene. She glances at a page of the script just long enough to not move with the flow of traffic, causing jazz pianist Seb (Gosling), who’s driving a vintage convertible, to swerve around her, honking and scowling. She gives him the finger. Ah, the meet cute.
Mia heads to an audition, where she performs an emotional scene beautifully, but is unceremoniously dismissed, mid-audition (her face is literally still streaked with tears). As for Seb, we discover that he is mourning the fact that his favorite jazz club has been turned into a “samba and tampas” bar (“What even is that?” he growls) and, since he’s dead broke, has been forced to beg to get his job back playing Christmas jingles in a restaurant lounge. But Seb can’t help himself, and he pivots from a tinny sounding holiday tune to a highly personal jazz song—it’s “City of Stars,” the film’s gorgeous theme song. The crowd is indifferent, Seb’s boss (J.K. Simmons, in a cameo) fires him again, but Mia, who came into the club to get out of the rain, is enrapt.
“I heard you play—” she starts, as Seb testily brushes past her.
(Minor quibble: Mia’s audition was so great and Seb’s musical digression so virtuoso, it’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t be recognized, on the spot, for the geniuses they are. But then we wouldn’t have a movie, I guess.)
Of course, they will meet again—this time at a pool party where Seb is humiliating himself by playing synthesizer in an ’80s cover band—and then find themselves walking the grounds together in search of their cars. (The valet line was too long, so they went rogue.) It’s (another) beautiful night and they sing a fetching song about how the romantic setting is wasted on them, two people who have no romantic feelings for each other whatsoever. The next day, Seb shows up at Mia’s place of work—a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot—and their romance begins in earnest, peaking with a swoony scene at Griffith Observatory that has the two soon-to-be lovers literally floating in the stars.
La La Land is directed by wunderkind Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) and, besides the obvious jazz connection, it also has similar themes of artistic integrity and never compromising your dreams. But while that film had a certain pervading bitterness, La La Land is hopeful, even giddy. And Chazelle directs with heaps of style and charm. Along with that wonderful use of color, he often has Mia or Seb standing in front of a mural or a desolate neon sign, creating a painterly effect. In some of the dance numbers, he slows down, or even stops the background action, as our heroes glide through the scene. Dance numbers often begin with an insouciant tap of the toe or fingers. In one number, he uses silhouettes to great effect. It’s really a thing to watch.
Just to be clear, though, Mia and Seb have struggles, as all young artists do. And the film is self-aware enough to wonder if Seb’s jazz puritanism is simply an affect, or at least a kind of ill-advised nostalgia. The film ends in an alternate universe, filled with longing and romance and regret. La La Land will make your heart sing—while breaking it a little bit, too.
Oh, and as for my skeptical friend? She loved it.
La La Land opens in Baltimore on Friday, December 16