La La Land ✮✮✮1/2
One From the Heart
by Glenn Lovell
We have just the thing for filmgoers feeling more than a little put-upon this holiday season. It’s an extra-rich but hardly filling confection garnished with candy-colored sprigs and creamy, marshmallow clouds. It’s the kind of film we’re told that Hollywood, in its rush to field the next superhero franchise, doesn’t make anymore.
Take that old Hollywood-or-bust chestnut — yes, the 1954 Judy Garland version of “A Star Is Born” will do — and combine it with a postmodern fable from the French New Wave, something along the lines of Godard’s “A Woman Is a Woman” or Jacques Demy’s “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” and you’ve got the Day-Glo lustrous “La La Land,” a new/old musical costarring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as the boy and girl who meet cute, spare for a couple of scenes, fall in and out of love, then realize . . .
Well, you get the idea. Mia (Stone), a feisty but frustrated wannabe from Bolder City, NV, and Sebastian (Gosling), a stuffy jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own club, are the new century’s Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly. She teaches him to lighten up; he tells her it’s OK to reach for the stars. We know they’re made for each other because when they finally begin swaying to the music — on a bench overlooking L.A.— they appear to move as one. (Justin Hurwitz composed the music; Benj Pasnek and Justin Paul did the lyrics; “Dancing with the Stars” Mandy Moore choreographed.)
You’ll definitely want to check your skepticism at the door before embarking on this romantic odyssey. It’ll be well worth the trouble. “La La Land” is the first new Hollywood musical worth caring about in who knows how long. And I’m not forgetting Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” I was never a fan.
Maybe, as some are predicting, this film will kick off a revival of big-screen musicals. It already has the industry buzz and will be a hard package to beat come Oscar time. (Seven Golden Globes don’t hurt.)
Directed by Damien Chazelle, who announced his arrival with the frenetic, Oscar-winning “Whiplash,” this lighter-than-light soufflé is meant as both a Valentine to the City of Angels and Hollywoodland and a full-out exercise in logic-be-damned formalism. I know what you’re thinking — yeah, sure, sounds like more ghoulish, self-reflexive camp a la David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.” You can stow the cynicism. Chazelle did.
What makes this film so infectious, so unabashedly uplifting, is that Chazelle doesn’t for a moment wink at the viewer. He’s guileless. He really believes in his trompe l’oeil world of violet sunsets, Chaplin and Marilyn murals, and twinkly planetarium stars. (Sebastian’s affection for the James Dean classic “Rebel without a Cause” eventually leads the couple to that film’s most famous setting, Griffith Park Observatory.)
No, Gosling won’t make you forget Astaire or Kelly. He’s not much of a singer and, though light on his feet and obviously a quick study, can sometimes be caught concentrating a little too hard on his next move. Stone fares better in the song-and-dance department. And after a party, as they search for Mia’s misplaced car, the pair slip easily into a courtship dance almost as memorable as the tentative Kelly and Leslie Caron dance on the quay in “An American in Paris.”
The number brings gooseflesh and tells us that Chazelle has a more than decent shot at pulling off the impossible — a widescreen, color-saturated salute to classic MGM musicals that never feels like either a self-conscious homage or a full-bore genre makeover.
“La La Land” only stubs its toe when Mia and Sebastian — struggling, respectively, with a one-woman show and middle-of-the-road acceptance — start pummeling each other with cheap shots. Chazelle’s till now feather-light narrative has trouble shouldering these hurtful recriminations. Consequently, they feel like they belong in another movie (Scorsese’s “New York, New York”?).
But this is a minor bump in the road that sets up the year’s most glorious surprise: a trip through a parallel universe in which everything works out fine. Or does it?
As I sat enthralled I couldn’t help thinking of Francis Coppola’s experimental “One from the Heart,” released way back in 1981. It was supposed to revive both the director’s career and the languishing backlot musical. A colossal flop, it did neither. Why? Because Coppola sacrificed the magic for newfangled mechanics, then-cutting-edge video technology. His film lacked Chazelle’s wide-eyed sense of wonder. Indeed, “La La Land” is everything Coppola the big-tent showman once promised us — and more. It was worth the 35 year wait.
LA LA LAND ✮✮✮1/2 With Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, J.K. Simmons. Written, directed by Damien Chazelle. 128 min. PG-13 (slight profanity but OK for pre-teens)