La La Land ★★★★½

“I’m always gonna love you.” “I’m always gonna love you, too.”

Words have meaning. It was a favorite phrase of a professor at my law school (a professor under whom I thankfully did not matriculate, given his reputation), and it is a maxim to which I try my utmost to adhere (though I fail more often than not). If the purpose of language is to communicate meaning, one must choose one’s words carefully and with purpose, lest one be misunderstood or misconstrued. The listener must always engage in some interpretive work, but if the speaker leaves it to her audience to create meaning from nothingness, she has failed at her most basic task.

Of course, to say “words have meaning” is to dramatically over-simplify. If blunt articulation were our only goal, the dictionary would not be overrun with synonyms and homonyms and bears, oh my. Words have meaning, but so do body language and inflection, tone of voice and facial expression. The niceties of tact, the vagaries of regional dialect, the conscription of terms to meet the demands of a changing world, and the soul-soothing balm of passive-aggression all complicate the simplicity of definitional certainty. Perhaps a rose by any other name would smell as sweet—but perhaps if it had another name, we wouldn’t want to smell it in the first place.

It is telling, then, that Damien Chazelle named his valentine to/inspiration born from/update of the classic Hollywood and French musicals of yesteryear La La Land. Just as one might call La La Land a pastiche or an homage or a reworking or a rip-off or an imitation—all meaning both the same and vastly different things—so is “la la land” both a nickname for Los Angeles, the film’s setting and home of the Dream Factory, and a slang term for being out of touch with reality. One might say Chazelle’s film is phony or fantastic, unrealistic or imaginative, simplistic or elegant, but by choosing La La Land for his title, Chazelle looks to cut off at least some of his naysayers at the pass: Of course this musical romantic comedy-drama is set outside the confines of the real world; that’s the point.

Chazelle himself has said that La La Land is exceptionally personal to him, that he wanted “to fill the screen to the brim with things I personally love.” And it shows. Every corner of each widescreen frame drips with detail, callbacks to the days of cinema gone by, colorful flourishes, all captured by Linus Sandgren’s gauzy, otherworldly cinematography and showy, exuberant camera movements. At times, it threatens to be too much (Chazelle seems to know as much, mocking himself by having Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) insist that a good venture should pick one thing and do it right), and yet—not unlike Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash—it is infectious. If one is inclined to go overboard, why not go overboard with style and affection and obvious skill?

La La Land’s story is, in the time-honored tradition of the Astaire-Rogers and MGM musicals of yore, simple: Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress, auditioning for one subpar role after another while toiling as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot; Sebastian is a jazz musician obsessed with traditionalism who dreams of opening his own club and chafes at the commercial gigs on which he must subsist. They meet-cute a few times, first loathing and then loving each other in the finest screwball tradition, but their artistic ambitions eventually threaten the stability of their relationship. What will win out: love, or art, or both? (Spoiler-filled answers follow.)

That Chazelle intends his boy-meets-girl story to be a valentine to cinema’s past is obvious from his opening gag, a shout-out to CinemaScope in the vein of a 1950s musical extravaganza. From there, La La Land opens on its trickiest number—a tone-setting song-and-dance on a backed-up L.A. freeway, the drivers exiting their vehicles to croon and cavort ecstatically about the dreams that took them to Hollywood and that, despite their lack of realization, continue to feed them. “Another Day of Sun” is audacious, filmed in an ostensible single take and filled with joy (although the spell is somewhat broken by the miscalibrated sound mix, which dampens the vocals to the point that the lyrics don’t land in quite the way they should). If it perhaps tries too hard, it has the virtue of setting the tone—this will be a film in which people spontaneously erupt into choreographed musical numbers, whether that is to your liking or not—as well as establishing the candy-colored look of the film. From the first singer, clad in a yellow dress with white polka dots, through the blues and greens and reds and pinks, it is clear that Chazelle (along with costume designer Mary Zophres and production designer David Wasco) have pored over the works of Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly and Jacques Demy. More importantly, though, “Another Day of Sun” sets up the difficult combination of influences and tones that Chazelle looks to achieve—yes, it is a fantasy in which everyone is a dreamer and glorious Technicolor spectacles can happen at any moment and the sun always shines even in the dead of winter, but it is also a world in which dreams often go unfulfilled and traffic jams disrupt and distract. The hope for a better tomorrow may be buoyed by the citizenry’s aspirations, but that won’t keep someone from throwing you the bird.

That mix of starry-eyed romanticism and melancholy pragmatism informs the entirety of La La Land, which is every bit as much a tribute to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort as it is to Singin’ in the Rain and Swing Time. Something about that mix—the knowing, cynical, but secretly optimistic French mixed with the sunny, naïve, but secretly suspicious American—gives Chazelle’s tale a great deal of its power and elevates it beyond the mere tracing-paper exercise it threatens to be. The good and the bad, the uplifting and the dispiriting do not just exist alongside each other but often are the same thing viewed from different perspectives, such that one cannot escape the latter without also missing out on the former.

Chazelle’s structure is exceedingly clever, especially upon repeat viewing. Among the common complaints about La La Land is that it drags in its back half, losing the musical pep of its early numbers as it surveys the dissolution of Mia and Sebastian’s relationship. But really these are two separate inquiries. It is not entirely untrue that the pace slackens in the second half (the scenes with The Messengers, the popular jazz-pop fusion band Sebastian joins with former classmate Keith (John Legend), take longer than needed to make their point). But the lack of musical numbers in the home stretch seems entirely intentional. Justin Hurwitz’s delightful songs, with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are the embodiment of the characters’ ambitions and desires—“Another Day of Sun” imagines a world of neverending promise; “Someone in the Crowd” surveys (with a wistful interlude) the possibility of discovery and artistic realization at any moment; “A Lovely Night” playacts antipathy between people clearly too beautiful and banter-filled not to be soulmates; “City of Stars” yearns, somewhat hesitantly, for romantic fulfillment in a city whose commodification of that notion is its bread and butter. Yet as Sebastian joins The Messengers for a steady paying job in place of his mythic “Chicken on a Stick” club—a misbegotten venture of jazz-honoring purity—and Mia withdraws from auditions and their relationship to focus on her one-woman play, the reality of compromise and failure seeps in.

This is borne out by the musical numbers that do populate the film’s back half. “Start a Fire,” the one number that is nothing like anything in the trusty MGM or Demy playbook, is a paean to burning brightly that extinguishes Sebastian’s spirit. Though it speaks of the heat of passion and lighting up the night, it is quality soullessness in the manner of the best radio-friendly hits—not bad, exactly, but certainly lacking the passion it extols, not to mention anything resembling a dream. Otherwise, no song-and-dance appears until “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” Mia’s big emotional ode to her aunt’s adventures in Paris and, more broadly, to the worth of striving for the elusive and creative even when the world laughs at your impracticality. This is followed eventually by the epilogue, a fantasia of what might have been between Mia and Sebastian had their lives not taken them down separate paths, beautifully, pointedly artificial, a bittersweet ode to a dream that no amount of reality can dampen. That La La Land frontloads its singing and dancing may disappoint one hoping for wall-to-wall performance, but within Chazelle’s narrative, it makes perfect sense: Maybe one can realize her wildest professional dreams only by sacrificing (or at least transposing) her romantic ones; maybe one can pay tribute to one’s inspirations via an artistically pure establishment, but only after serving time in a artistically impure venture and compromising one’s name for something less idiosyncratic.

Throughout his confection, Chazelle points (often not so subtly) to his forebears, creating a world that exists as a testimonial to moving pictures. Mia sleeps under a giant picture of Ingrid Bergman, whose poster will later appear as Mia, having achieved stardom, heads home. Murals of stars from the past (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Bogie and Bacall) appear casually. Mia and her roommates decorate their apartment with posters for The Black Cat and The Killers, while posters for Shadow of a Doubt and A Farewell to Arms also pop up in the background. Mia, describing her aunt’s love of old movies (shared with her niece on trips to the library), namedrops Notorious and Casablanca and Bringing Up Baby. “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” begins as a story of Mia’s aunt jumping into the Seine, recalling a famous moment from Jules and Jim. And of course Rebel Without a Cause is not just mentioned but duplicated in the form of a date at an old-fashioned movie house followed by a phantasmagorical trip to the Griffith Observatory, where the new lovers literally dance in the stars à la WALL•E.

And then there are the musicals. “Another Day of Sun” recalls The Young Girls of Rochefort in opening with automobile occupants exiting their cars to dance. The seasonal title cards, while providing a cute running joke about the immutability of L.A.’s weather, recall The Young Girls of Rochefort and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, both of which denote the passage of time onscreen. Across the street from Mia’s coffee shop is a parapluies shop. “Someone in the Crowd” evokes West Side Story’s “I Feel Pretty” and Sweet Charity, leading up to a montage of sparkling lights and poured champagne that is straight out of Singin’ in the Rain. “A Lovely Night”’s dance above the Hollywood hills calls to mind Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire dancing in The Band Wagon (and has its own Singin’ in the Rain moment when Sebastian twirls around a lamppost). And the closing ballet calls to mind the codas of both An American in Paris and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

But part of the brilliance of Chazelle’s confection is that one need not know any of these references to appreciate La La Land. The impact of his alternate-universe fantasia is not dulled if one has not seen Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo reunite briefly at a snow-covered French gas station. The giddy pleasure of Mia and Sebastian dancing amid a purple twilight is not dimmed if one is unfamiliar with Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. To dismiss La La Land as nothing more than a wanting facsimile not only confuses an appeal to cinephiles as a cover for hackwork, but also wrongly assumes that Chazelle’s direction and Sandgren’s cinematography and Hurwitz’s score and Stone and Gosling’s performances can only evoke pleasure by comparison and recognition rather than by their own merits—it reduces the whole of La La Land’s pleasures to a Family Guy cutaway gag.

Gosling is dependable as always as Sebastian. Though I cannot say I am an ardent fan, Gosling’s tendency toward smug self-possession is well-deployed in the context of a jazz bro who believes that making a living is anathema to artistic purity. And he sells well his belief in Mia’s talent and the film’s humor, continuing to demonstrate his substantial comedic gifts (the running gag of Sebastian’s heightened startle response is a particular highlight). But La La Land belongs, from beginning to end, to Stone. Though Mia, like so many romantic musical comedy characters of yore, is conceived more as a stock type than as a three-dimensional being, Stone invests her with depth not present on the page—the geeky girl next door dancing to “I Ran (So Far Away),” the woman transfixed by her aunt’s travels and passions and longing to duplicate them but unsure whether her dreams and her talents align, initially willing to subsume her ambitions in favor of lesser ventures (both professional and personal, as in boyfriend Greg (Finn Wittrock)) but eventually pursuing her heart’s desires. The emotion with which she sings “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is rightly hailed (completing a journey from feathery-voiced whisper to full-throated belting that represents the character’s arc in microcosm), but Stone shows Mia’s talent long before that—her first audition, playing one side of a phone call, shows a flood of feelings shifting wordlessly across her face before being hilariously cut short by an assistant’s interruption. Small moments, like her kick of the heel and wave of the skirt in “Someone in the Crowd” or her run to the Rialto to meet Sebastian, simultaneously quivering with excitement and carefree, are miraculous, and her comic timing is every bit the equal of Gosling’s (“What is his prob…I should go.”).

Most impressive of all for both is the dinner in which Sebastian and Mia gradually reveal their mutual dissatisfaction, moving from affection to irritation to outright verbal warfare in completely believable fashion. Under a green glow straight out of Vertigo (a California film about the corruptive power of romance and the ghosts it can unleash), Chazelle’s script smartly shows how genuine attempts to do the right thing by one’s partner can yield misunderstandings and resentment (building beautifully off of small earlier moments, like Mia asking Sebastian about Keith and Sebastian overhearing Mia’s conversation with her mother). Sebastian tempers his obsession with purity in favor of lucrative compromise, while Mia abandons the “Dangerous Minds meets The O.C.” programs for which she has been auditioning in favor of something truer and more real—each learning something form the other, transforming in ways personally productive and mutually destructive. Stone and Gosling play their parts perfectly, selling a downhill slide that could be unbelievably quick in the wrong hands. It is the culmination of something long brewing—the lusty red glow of Mia’s scarf over Sebastian’s bedroom lamp replaced by the harsh light of morning, showing bare white walls and water stains on the ceiling and nothing as romantic as what was only moments earlier.

Not everything, of course, is perfect. The supporting players (especially Rosemarie DeWitt as Sebastian’s sister, Laura) are given short shrift. Stone and Gosling’s singing and dancing are competent but unremarkable (especially in the case of the latter, whose voice is a bit too throaty and whose eyes look at his feet too often). Chazelle’s decision to inject an instance of modern profanity seems entirely out of place in the otherwise chaste world he has created. But then again, that may be part of the point. The studio system, working like a factory, yielded plentiful triple threats whose lives were lived under the unpleasant, often dictatorial thumb of studio heads who viewed their stars as especially valuable cattle. Without that system, dreams may be more democratically realized though not necessarily as spellbindingly packaged—the seams show a bit more. But if La La Land has anything to say, it is that, at least in the arts, personal and professional fulfillment are hard to come by simultaneously (it is not unlike Whiplash in that regard). Nothing is ever quite perfect. You find giddy, head-spinning love while your artistic aspirations languish; you find creative fulfillment across the Atlantic, thousands of miles from the object of your affection. Time rushes forward, sweeping us along in separate currents that seldom intertwine when or where we would like. And when they finally intertwine again...sometimes the words not spoken have the most meaning of all.

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