Damien Chazelle believes that Hollywood is as much a boulevard of broken dreams as it is a flavorsome Tinsel Town in which everything proves to be affectionately Technicolor if you look hard enough.
Those intertwining beliefs get him far in the winning modern-day musical “La La Land” — a proponent of both the idealistic Hollywood Golden Age and the darker romanticism of the latter day musical, he finds a wispy balance between old school tribute and game-changing revolution and ends up with something a little “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) and a little “All That Jazz” (1979).
Which ensures tonal imperfectability, but like all movies that try to connect the fantasy of breaking out into song when words can hardly profess your true emotional state and the reality that life is more shit throwing than rose colored, “La La Land” is a heady dose of epic enterprise matched in charm. Immediately clear is that it is among 2016’s great films.
The movie, made all the more charismatic as a result of its inspired casting, stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as a pair of struggling Hollywood amateurs brought together by circumstances more cinematically quaint than Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron’s first meeting in “An American in Paris” (1951). He, a traditionalist pianist named Sebastian, fantasizes about bringing jazz back to the masses and opening a club Morris Levy’d be proud of. She, an aspiring actress named Mia, currently works at a coffeeshop on the fringes of a production studio but yearns to be the Ingrid Bergman of the new millennium. After two abrupt encounters that find Sebastian in the grips of frustration, the twosome eventually finds common ground at a party characterized by the rubbing of elbows of big wigs and upstarts.
For its next two hours does “La La Land” follow their romance with a dedication that rings as hopelessly tender, supplely theatrical, and delicately bittersweet. Like Judy Garland and James Mason’s relationship in “A Star Is Born” (1954) — though octaves less stormy — the film is unmoving in its conclusion that the hard-to-reach finish line that is professional success isn’t much a personal life’s wingman. To struggle together isn’t always synonymous with staying together, and yet there’s a gorgeous stir in that sentiment that gives “La La Land” the weight necessary to corroborate that it’s lyrical, not just romantic zing. Its characters grow together, perfect themselves together — they’re so much more than the frequently stock characters of the musical.
“La La Land” is, of course, likely to appeal to the old souls that find a strange manner of tranquility when in the presence of Louis B. Mayer’s star factory and all its prim products. Quickly clear to us is that Sebastian and Mia are the sort that have to fight for years to become hot commodities, but only later, in the film’s climactic scene (which, in addition to being one of the best movie moments of the decade, finds an auditioning Mia singing of the melancholies that come along with being a hopeless dreamer), are we reminded of all the individuals that lusted after seeing their name in lights but didn’t ever find out what it was like to get their big break.
And that fantasist cum fatalist attitude is what gets Chazelle far. Though he’s devout in his homages to the musical’s most triumphant eras (with the opening credits preceded by the CinemaScope logo, with the photography reminiscent of the warmth of 1961’s “West Side Story,” and with the final few moments throwing in glimpses of dreamworlds of 1953’s “The Band Wagon’s” quality), never does he lose sight of the woes that plague an idealist in a world that doesn’t much care if you make it or if you don’t. When not ensnared with the technical mastery of its musical sequences — the flamboyant “Someone’s In the Crowd” is the 2016 equivalent of “Singin’ in the Rain’s” iconic “Good Morning” routine, and the gravity toying, star bound slow dance (set in the all-important planetarium of 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause”) is an unforgettable sight — ample time is committed to digging claws into the characters’ neuroses.
The succession of audition scenes on the part of Stone is enough to argue for the conviction that she’s among the best actresses of her generation, but better yet are the sequences that challenge the latter and Gosling’s easygoing rapport. It’s reliably endearing to watch them make small talk, but “La La Land” is at its most magnificent when they’re at odds with what they want professionally and what they want personally, the world working against them as their respective dreams clash with the dreams of the other.
Stone is Oscar worthy as a woman at war with the painful cravings to become America’s next sweetheart and the increasing plummets in self-confidence due to her seemingly incessant journey of bad auditions. Gosling is her perfect match — the Astaire to her Rogers — as the musical zealot that’d rather die with his ambitions deep in his belly than give up on them. Together do they blend seamlessly, bringing a type of cinematic romance that goes far beyond working off chemistry that works for a screen test. Here, they develop a relationship of three-dimensional impact, so much so that even when their courtship is faced with potential ruin do we still find ourselves rooting for their success as a pair.
They’re the kind of persona driven stars we need in our disenchanted times, and Chazelle, hot off 2014’s fast and furious “Whiplash,” is a talent in full command of his artistic breadth. He’s an auteur able to connect his heart to the lens with the clarity of a young Scorsese, turning relative inexperience to youthful acuity that reeks of frenetic energy and a remarkably personal style. “La La Land’s” superlative conjoining of the old and the new, complemented by the joys of fantastical musical tropes, establishes it as a modern classic. That a modern classic can take on the form of the cinema’s most dated genre is the biggest indicator of the way its zeal overtakes you.