'La La Land' is nostalgic and modern and wonderful
"La La Land" is a lollapalooza, a splashy, old-fashioned Hollywood extravaganza. Writing/directing wunderkind Damien Chazelle fills it brimming with enchanting star magnetism, synchronized choreography, a melodic original score and jewel-colored CinemaScope sparkle (which is actually how it was shot).
In distinct timelines, it's both a Valentine to a more-glorious studio era of the past and a touchingly wised-up modern critique of bygone glory days, nostalgic romance and modern realism sharing a lovely dance. That's a big array of ingredients to combine. Rather than turning hopelessly convoluted through the orchestration of many moving parts, this fantasia intertwines them in exquisite harmony.
The setting is L.A., the legendary wonderland where dreams are born and buried day after day. It stars Emma Stone as Mia, a striving would-be actress and actual barista at a studio-lot coffee shop, and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, a bohemian pianist hoping to run his own jazz club. Under endless West Coast skies, they cross paths at the opening, stuck in a titanic freeway ramp traffic jam that generates a surreal song and dance chorus with a cast of hundreds. It's not a classic meet cute between the frustrated pair. He irritably honks his horn to push past her, and she replies by flipping him the bird.
They chase their own breaking-into-business desires separately in big city solitude — she at dead-end auditions, he performing for pocket money. Eventually they connect at a restaurant where he's reduced to performing ho-hum Christmas tunes. Against the house rules, he plays an original composition that changes their lives. It prompts his boss (hilariously grumpy J.K. Simmons) to fire him. It sways Mia to stare at him with starry eyes open as wide as hubcaps.
Not until the pair intersects months later at an '80s house party where he's hired to play tedious one-hit wonders from A-ha and A Flock of Seagulls do they begin to bond. The playlist is laughable but reminds them both that there's more to life than rocketing up the charts and back down again. And then they're off on a love story with a sense of grand adventure, each viewing the other as a dream that just might possibly come true.
It's a three-way romance, Mia and Seb giving each other some of the passion, sacrifice and focus needed to make a career as an artist. And how could they not as they kiss and dance the night away at the Griffith Observatory, so soaring in happiness that their bodies magically float in zero gravity among the planetarium's projected stars. Even though she confesses "I hate jazz," which she understands in terms of Kenny G elevator music, and he's lured into joining an endlessly touring rock band led by Keith (co-producer John Legend), who values marketing success over artistic integrity.
As the star-crossed aspiring stars try to balance the outs-and-ins of modern romance, one's success triggers another's insecurity. We're reminded of our entry point scene with a million cars stalled on the highway. Beyond its charming, heartfelt romance, "La La Land" is a movie about characters getting in each other's way. Their pursuit of big dreams they haven't been able to realize leads to a bittersweet final sequence, touring paths not taken.
This is a joy to watch, with a rhapsody of love and lightness in the performances. Stone and Gosling have done sassy romance before in "Crazy, Stupid Love" and "Gangster Squad." They repeat their movie magic here as the kinds of partners that are hard to find and sometimes even tougher to keep. Whether they are dancing side by side or bickering like a conversational badminton match, you think it's gotta be love.
Like Chazelle's brutally sharp noir musical "Whiplash," this hits inventive perfect pitch with clarity and snap. Yet it's the polar opposite in tone, generating the popping, playful excitement we haven't experienced since Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" or Rob Marshall's "Chicago." He knows when to play a scene real and when mannered fakery should create a cheerfully phony Hollywood back-lot feel. It makes efforts like Clint Eastwood's "Jersey Boys" and the "Pitch Perfect" series look like crude cave drawings by comparison.
If there is not an audience that craves this, 2016 has officially killed the movie industry.
LA LA LAND
4 out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for some language