Moulin Rouge. Yet the continued vitality of the musical shouldn't diminish the staggering triumph that is La La Land, the astonishing tour de force of song, dance, and joy from Damien Chazelle. To declare that this sweeping, soaring film has salvaged the musical from obscurity would be both inaccurate and reductive; La La Land is far too vibrant and versatile to be trivialized as the savior of a particular genre. All the same, it may well serve a broader critical function—simply uttering its title can now operate as a reflexive retort whenever anyone dares to bemoan the quality of modern movies. The musical may not be dead, but La La Land reaffirms that cinema itself is very much alive.
Of course, anyone doubting the medium's endurance probably hasn't seen Chazelle's prior film, Whiplash.
That brilliant drama chronicled the corrosive relationship between a
virtuoso drummer and his ferocious conductor, a fascinating dynamic that
revealed the dark underbelly of the pursuit of greatness. With La La Land, Chazelle has retained Whiplash's
relentless energy, but he has swapped out its obsessive fury in favor
of a grand romanticism. The director is undeniably enraptured with the
musicals of yesteryear, in particular Jacques Demy's classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but his filmmaking is too
vigorous and inspiring to be motivated purely by nostalgia. Instead, he
has harnessed his considerable formal powers to tell a story of piercing
emotional clarity, if one that also happens to pay heartfelt homage to
Tinseltown's rich history. His abiding love of old movies has allowed
him to make a spectacular new one.
It takes some time for La La Land to establish its particular
rhythm, or rather, it takes exactly three minutes and forty-eight
seconds. That is the official length of the movie's opening number,
"Another Day of Sun," a remarkable, gleefully outrageous display of
musical gymnastics. Shot on a traffic-choked L.A. freeway and featuring
more than a hundred dancers, it instantly establishes the sheer
magnitude of the film's ambition; Chazelle and his cinematographer,
Linus Sandgren, capture everything in a single, flowing take, gliding
from one car to another as brightly costumed extras sing, smile, leap,
and tumble. It's the kind of bravura introduction that demands a
standing ovation even before the appearance of the opening title card.
This massive overture is also a sly bit of misdirection. With its theatrical scope and visual flair, La La Land
feels downright enormous, but as a narrative, it's beautifully
intimate, centering on two wayward, wannabe artists who meet-uncute in
the midst of that glorious traffic jam. The movie's first act follows
its heroes separately, efficiently establishing their hopes and
frustrations with the majesty and misery of life in the City of Angels.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who pays the rent by working as a
barista on the Warner Brothers studio lot; she's growing disenchanted
with the audition circuit, as she's constantly being passed over in
favor of taller, prettier women, all while scrapping to star in
pitiful-sounding projects with loglines like, "Dangerous Minds meets The O.C." (Sample dialogue: "No, Jamal—you
be trippin'."). Across town, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a piano player
and jazz aficionado who longs to open his own club, but seeing as the
position of "Hoagy Carmichael enthusiast" doesn't generate much income,
he's reduced to playing holiday carols at restaurants and gigging in
cheesy '80s cover bands.
Crazy Stupid Love) and bad (Gangster Squad),
but here they deliver pitch-perfect performances that are exquisitely
complementary. Mia and Sebastian's courtship is founded as much on
hostility as magnetism, and the actors revel in the comic timing of
their characters' snippy one-upmanship. It's a delightfully rancorous
rapport, and when the two share an accidental nighttime stroll in the
Hollywood Hills, they disguise their growing attraction as mutual
Of course, their rhythmic sparring is not entirely verbal—they also
spend that evening singing and tap-dancing. A cynic might deem this a
cheap trick designed to heighten their connection, but La La Land's
boisterous tone leaves no room for cynicism. Let me be clear: As a
musical, this movie is utterly magnificent. On the page, the songs by
Justin Hurwitz are both buoyant and precise, with gorgeous melodies and
graceful rhymes. But it is Chazelle's execution that truly astounds.
Aesthetically speaking, La La Land is as bold and expressive a
picture as you are likely to see. The colors seem to pop off the screen,
bursts of monochrome that intensify the movie's vivid palette. The
camera movements are mesmerizing, with Chazelle disfavoring rapid
cutting and instead filming incredibly complex numbers in long,
impossibly fluid shots. And the choreography by Mandy Moore is
masterful, capturing the film's vivacious spirit; when Mia and Sebastian
suddenly embark on a literal flight of fancy in the L.A. planetarium,
you will feel as though you're floating right beside them.
At its core, La La Land is about the giddy and painful process of
finding and losing love, but it is also about art itself, which places
it in a very precarious position. Any movie that so passionately reveres
its forebears is liable to be guilty of revisionist history, of piously
bowing its head to the past while smugly thumbing its nose at the
present. La La Land seems destined to fall into that realm of
condescension when Sebastian reunites with Keith (John Legend, nicely
relaxed), a commercially successful pop star who fronts a band called
The Messengers. Sebastian grudgingly accepts Keith's offer of work, but
he clearly views his new employer as a sellout, a betrayer of jazz's
true identity. And for a time, it appears that the movie agrees with
him; certainly, its depiction of one of The Messengers'
concerts—complete with garish lighting, glitzy dancers, and a gaudy
electronic keyboard—suggests an outfit that's more concerned with money
And really, the same goes for La La Land as a whole. Its critical plaudits will likely
include some variation on the line, "They don't make 'em like this
anymore," which is a falsehood on its face—they just did. But do not
mistake this marvelous film for a mere throwback; it is far too vital,
too present, to be a meager imitation of the past. So here's to you, La La Land. Here's to the movies that dream.