La La Land (2016)

Musical Rated PG-13

One of the fizziest, dizziest, most delightful movie musicals to come around since Fred Astaire spun Ginger Rogers across soundstages, La La Land proves that good old-fashioned showmanship still has a place in this entertainment age. I’m not forgetting Singin’ in the Rain or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg—both are monuments this can’t touch. Yet compared to the musical revival attempts of recent decades—be they from Baz Luhrmann or Rob Marshall, whose movies I’ve enjoyed—La La Land better recaptures the effervescent verve of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, La La Land stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as Mia and Sebastian, a pair of dreamers who are pursuing their passions (including each other) in modern-day Hollywood. The simplicity of the story is purposeful. As with those Astaire-Rogers pictures, the narrative matters less than the way Stone swings her dress or the way Gosling shuffles his feet. Plot is simply a reason to be on stage. If La La Land aches, longs, sighs, and throbs—and it does—it’s not because of what happens to the characters, but because of its music, colors, movement, and gestures. These are the cinematic elements that we’ve lost in pushing movie musicals aside in favor of forms that prioritize “story.”

Consider La La Land’s lighting scheme, which is not only artfully designed (Hollywood has rarely been this romantically lit), but also responsive to the changing moods of a given scene. When Mia, an aspiring actress, walks into a restaurant where Sebastian, a hopeful jazz pianist, is playing, the lights around her go down so that she stands in a spotlight, transfixed and transfixing. Similarly, when Sebastian rebelliously veers away from the holiday classics he’s been told to play into a more complicated jazz number, the lighting again shifts to focus on his hands. Elsewhere in the movie, the lighting even shifts in color. It’s as if the film itself is deeply attuned to the evolving emotional states of its characters—a movie mood ring, if you will.

The film is attuned to the evolving emotional states of its characters—a movie mood ring, if you will.

Of course, musicals have long expressed their characters’ emotions through dance, and the same is true here. Stone and Gosling are nowhere near the performers that Rogers and Astaire were, but they do manage a lovely, flirtatious pas de deux while walking together down a leafy street that captures, in movement, just the right combination of hesitation and excitement. Later there is a bravura montage set inside Griffith Observatory, in which their spinning figures are projected against the vastness of space. It gets a bit outlandish—something of an ill-advised attempt to mimic the “Ballet of the Red Shoes” sequence in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger ‘s The Red Shoes—but there is no denying that the way the sequence begins, with Sebastian gently lifting Mia into the air when he realizes gravity no longer holds them, is pure magic.

It shouldn’t have taken me this long to mention the music, which was written by Justin Hurwitz, Chazelle’s collaborator on Whiplash and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. (The lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.) Incorporating elements from jazz, big band, and Broadway show tunes, the songs have a brazen confidence in their ability to entertain; they literally toot their own horn. Yet just when you think the movie may be overdosing on its own giddiness, Hurwitz slows things down with a lovely, plaintive ballad, “City of Stars.”

Gosling and Stone do their own singing on that number, as they do throughout. He holds his own, while she has what can only be called a powerhouse delicacy. This is especially true on “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” which begins as a tentative whisper, builds to a declarative cry, and then dissipates into thin air. I can only hope she finds another musical to anchor, and soon.

Still, my favorite scene in La La Land may be the one in which Stone and Gosling don’t appear. The movie opens in the midst of a traffic jam on the freeway, which transforms into an elaborate production number as the drivers exit their cars to join in dance and song, captured by cinematographer Linus Sandgren in an extended single take (though there may be cheating in the swish pans). It’s as if Chazelle and his collaborators can’t wait to get to the good stuff. There’s no setting up of the plot (even the Astaire-Rogers pictures wasted time on that), but instead an instant celebration of joyous movement and music. La La Land may be an ode to Hollywood’s past, but there’s also reason to believe that Chazelle is ushering in a brave new future.