Only two years ago, writer/director Damien Chazelle delivered his breakthrough drama Whiplash to universal acclaim. For his third feature, titled La La Land, Chazelle reaches into Hollywood’s musical yesteryear to retro-frame a musical romance drama into a contemporary setting. Starring Ryan Gosling (fresh off a similarly humorous turn in the underrated The Nice Guys) and Emma Stone (still building on the success of her Oscar-nominated performance in 2014’s Birdman), La La Land tells the story of two young artists with major ambitions who by a mix of chance and fate bump into each other in a series of mishaps that evolves into affection.
Sebastian (Gosling) is a down-on-his-luck, jazz-purist pianist who hopes to rejuvenate the dying relevance of jazz while paying strict homage to its musical purity in a nightclub he hopes to one day own. Socially acerbic yet dryly humorous, Sebastian is caught between his own ascendant talent, and his limiting tendency to burn down bridges with his un-workman-like attitude. Meanwhile, Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress working on the Hollywood lot as she throws herself into the deluge of acting auditions that yields less than positive result. They yield a smoldering indifference that crushes the spirit Mia needs to achieve success. These two cross paths in rather unpleasant circumstances that would normally prevent any future bond, but as they continue to interact, a bond forms nonetheless. In that bond, a greater understanding of each other’s artistic interests and talents brings them together as they pursue careers in their respective fields.
Through the film’s protagonists, who have the only true sizable roles in the film, themes of ambition and love teeter on a scale throughout. As the film ventures through the rigors of artistic career-building, the sizable disappointments that mount through the journey color the character’s journeys and test the boundaries of their romance. Ryan Gosling, while very understated in his performance, conveys his vulnerabilities through the slightest facial expressions and gestures, which were no doubt practiced in his two collaborations with Nicolas Winding Refn (2011’s Drive and 2013’s Only God Forgives). Underneath his sneer and silence, Gosling emits a loveable quality that is certainly pegged down a few notches from his “lovable doofus” role of Holland March in The Nice Guys but still visible.
Emma Stone’s more home-sy, real-world performance inspires great empathy for her character’s struggles, and major disappointments all of which feel heartfelt rather than planned for some late act resurgence. Instead, Stone embodies a full-fledged character who she infuses with heart that makes the entire film work. Although there is a supporting cast that include musician John Legend and Finn Wittrock, the supporting cast rarely have much to offer beyond the high-concept musical production that involves them, which may explain the film’s notable lack of a Best Cast nomination by the Screen Actors Guild. Nevertheless, the film works well enough on the weight of its two leads. Musically, the film fuses its musical compositions, lyrics and score with the performances, characters and themes of the film perfectly, becoming more exemplary of what original songs are meant to do in cinema opposed to the gimmicky end-credits soundtrack compilations that make good promotional trinkets (do you hear me Suicide Squad: The Album?)
As an overall production, Damien Chazelle comes more into his own as a filmmaker as he weaves together a smaller-budget production that seems like the kind of massive Hollywood musical production that was far more prevalent in the 1950s and1960s. Highly reminiscent of the kind of Oscar-winning films of the past (before the brooding social indies took over), La La Land uniquely harkens to history while planting its feet firmly in the present in a manner The Artist couldn’t. Tom Cross’ editing truly eclipses his Oscar-winning work for Whiplash given the almost circular transitions, stops, revisited motifs and artistic setups. The bold yet almost simple production design is well utilized by its dancing, and singing cast while Linus Sandgren’s cinematography beautifully illuminates color mixed in with celluloid classicism almost in the vein of Paul Thomas Anderson’s second phase works (such as Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice).
As a late-year release, La La Land is a welcome send-off allowing for positive yet not cheaply-sold optimism in the face of a year of uncertainty, death, depression, division, anger, outrage and confusion. By the roll of its ends credit, there is a feeling that a magnus opus has been delivered and it’s one that’s not a motion-capture of 2016, but one that will live far beyond its time much like the final cymbal crash in Damien Chazelle’s first masterpiece Whiplash.