Damien Chazelle's sophomore feature Whiplash blasted him onto the Oscar scene in 2014, garnering not only Best Picture accolades, but a Best Supporting Actor trophy for J.K. Simmons, one of the great character actors of the past 20 years. While that film is mostly focused on a back and forth between a mentor-like figure and his student, and the antagonistic relationship that develops through stridency and attempted reaching of artistic potential, that film held one somewhat underplayed note in its romantic subplot between the characters played by Miles Teller and Melissa Benoist. Shunted off to one scene, the protagonist casts aside a promising relationship in order to further his ambitions. There's much to be said about that kind of (some would say wrongheaded) sacrifice, but Whiplash wasn't terribly interested in digging too deep into that part of its central figure's psyche, for better or worse. Many critics derided that as its most nagging flaw, a sort of b-plot that doesn't really go anywhere.
La La Land, Chazelle's follow-up, feels like a direct response to that line of criticism, where the romance is pushed front and center but is still surrounded by the sounds of jazz, along with deep discussions of a traditionalist take on that style, all within the visual and storytelling trappings of something out of the old MGM "Freed unit" of motion picture musicals.
It's the story of Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who works as a barista at a studio coffee shop. She goes to auditions with little success, she goes to Hollywood parties with her roommates, all hoping to get noticed by producers. She holds a deep love of cinema, especially that of the classic variety, and because of her predilections, she feels like an outsider looking in at a pretty cut-throat business.
It's also the story of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a working jazz pianist, who bounces from restaurant to restaurant trying to make ends meet playing music that he can't stand. His deepest desire is to one day open his own jazz club that plays "real jazz", an artform that he knows is dying, but he thinks there's still room for a haven for its admirers.
By a bit of happenstance, they meet...and their romance and its aftermath produces what is likely the best big picture musical of the past decade or more.
In truth, the competition for that title is quite thin, between flawed takes on good material (Chicago, Les Miserables) and good versions of subpar musicals (Sweeney Todd), there's just not many of these types of films even made anymore, but this sort of bright, technicolor take on the form is especially rare. What Chazelle pulls off here is akin to acting as a sort of Jacques Demy for the 21st Century. From the opening sequence, which sees commuters in the daily LA highway traffic jam, leave their cars and burst into song in a wonderfully choreographed sequence, you know exactly what kind of film you're in for and what sort of influences Chazelle has imbued this picture with. It helps that Stone and Gosling are able to rekindle some of that same chemistry that made them the only watchable thing about Crazy, Stupid, Love., but this time they're surrounded by a dreamcoat of a film that matches that partnership to a t.
Chazelle and, musical collaborator, Justin Hurtwitz load this film with toe-tapping jazzy numbers that are wonderfully "ear-wormy", particularly the down-tempo "City of Stars" and the bravura dance number "A Lovely Night". And while both Gosling and Stone get their opportunities to shine in this picture that jumps into magical realism effortlessly in order to visually portray their romance over the course of four seasons, it's Stone who provides the show stopping number that's needed to seal the deal with the emotionally stirring "Audition". Neither lead is necessarily what you'd call a tremendously versatile vocalist, but they both carry their tunes in capable enough fashion and do it with so much charisma that you never think twice about what a more traditional "Broadway voice" would bring to the proceedings. It would be for the lesser, that is certain.
Additionally this is a film that has more on it's mind than just your traditional romance bloom, as there's a gripping theme that develops in both Mia and Sebastian's stories, related to how we do or don't compromise to make our dreams a reality, and just what are we willing to put aside in order to be with that person we love? Or is not sacrificing success in the face of stable companionship a worthwhile choice? Does one even have to make that choice in the first place? And I adore how the film's look darkens and the music itself almost vanishes as these questions begin to present themselves and the petals start to fall off the rose, as it were.
Even the film is willing to look at its leads with an objective eye, especially Sebastian, a character that Chazelle uses as a bit of a mouthpiece for his own views regarding "jazz as a dying artform", but then presents him in a somewhat contemptible light, particularly when he has to make these decisions regarding his own goals and wants. In a way, you can almost see both characters as a slight bit of satire towards the writer-director's own leanings regarding traditionalist thought and that sort of immovable stubbornness regarding change that prevents you from ever moving forward at all. There's a spellbinding bit of unpackaging to be had there, and I look forward to doing so in subsequent views.
It's a beautiful motion picture, one of the best of the year, and its final sequence is so wonderfully honed that it provides that knockout final blow, both within the visual spectrum that it makes its playground, and its bigger thematic concerns.
In other words, someone must have thrown a cymbal at Chazelle's head, because now he's definitely "Bird".