Sunday, December 11, 2016

"La La Land"

 5 / 5  

La La Land is the real thing, an authentic, original, widescreen musical that's all-singing, all-dancing, all-splendid in the way movies were before we became too weary and cynical for them.

Maybe we've become so cynical, weary, angry and violent that we're ready for La La Land, a musical unlike any we've seen in recent years, one that does not strain under the weight of trying to revive a dead genre but finds a sweet, giddy freedom in the knowledge that it's been decades since anyone tried anything this ... musical.

Chicago shot new energy into the art form back in 2002, but even it wasn't like this -- it used well-known source material and was still a movie of the times, sly and a bit sinister.  La La Land is different, special, so precariously balanced on the edge of sweetness and silliness that one false step will push it all the way over, but Damien Chazelle, its writer-director, and especially Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, its movie stars, don't make a single mistake.

It's not that they don't come close: The opening number is just a tad too much like a music video, and for a few brief moments in the middle where the pacing almost falters, but even these almost-missteps are like watching a wire walker who pretends to lose her balance; in fact, La La Land knows exactly what it's doing and where it's going.  And when it gets there, boy -- well, hold on, let me go back to the start.

La La Land opens on a familiar scene of gridlock on an L.A. freeway, but instead of road rage the drivers break into a sunny, sweet opening song that ends by introducing its two leads: hopeful actress Mia (Emma Stone) and frustrated jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who pass each other by but will meet again soon enough.

For much of its first 30 minutes or so, La La Land seems like a cute, music-infused L.A. satire, a less surreal updating of Steve Martin's 1990 love-it-or-hate-it L.A. Story, with which it shares a certain stylized, bemused perspective.  (It also echoes with the sounds of a surprising source, Martin Scorsese's dour and failed but fascinating musical experiment, New York, New York.)

Mia and Sebsatian inhabit a world that is just a little too bright, just a little too simple.  In this L.A., it's seemingly always "magic hour," that twilight time of cobalt-and-amber skies, and before long the rhythm that Chazelle is setting becomes clear: By the time the two engage in a Cole Porter-inspired hate-you-but-love-you song high above the twinkling lights, La La Land has become irresistible.

While it's already charming and lovely, it's not quite intoxicatingly swoonable, not yet -- that doesn't happen until its final act, which achieves the near-impossible task of mixing cinematic vision with real, vital emotion.  To do that, La La Land goes back to the beginning, in a soaring ballet-style sequence that belongs alongside the very best musical moments ever put on screen.

These are the sort of superlatives that you're going to find hard to believe, I'm sure, and maybe you should be dubious of my perspective.  I might just be in the throes of infatuation, of cinematic puppy love -- but I've got a sneaking suspicion that you're likely to feel about La La Land the way I felt about it, the way you felt long ago after dizzy, giggly first dates that ended at the door with a kiss and a smile and a wistful wondering of how it might have been if you had let it go on just a little while longer.

Even more remarkable is that Chazelle doesn't let it go on a moment too long, he knows exactly when to finish and how to bring La La Land to pitch-perfect conclusion, which left me wanting to go back and watch it all over again.  It's got such a perfect blend of sweetness and sadness (though to say more would be unfair) that it leaves you almost light-headed.

There's something else going on under the gorgeous surface, though.  About midway through its story, La La Land introduces a new character, Keith (John Legend), who confronts Sebastian with a harsh reality: The pianist's love for jazz, much like Mia's infatuation with old black-and-white movie stars, is a losing battle.  Jazz is dying, he says, and the urge to protect it is only going to hasten its demise.  It was created by people who were willing to dare being different; the insistence on dwelling on the past is exactly what they were railing against.

In that moment, La La Land begins offering something much deeper than its shimmering surface, because L.A. itself is the same way.  As Sebastian says, people in L.A. "worship everything but value nothing."  La La Land observes that maybe that dismissiveness isn't true.  Maybe it's like jazz itself, by mixing old and new, by looping back in on itself over and over and then finding its own way forward, by both revering the past and pushing forward into the future, and in that way is more than it appears to be.

The movie is the same.  It is in love with the same dream as everyone who starts out in the movie business -- it upholds the false vision that all movies are made in soundstages, that all movie stars are glamorous, that the skies in L.A. are always bathed in a Technicolor light.  It knows the truth, and it is well aware of what that truth means -- but it's happy nonetheless.

That makes it perfect for this moment, when we have seen so much unhappiness and ugliness that we don't know what to do anymore.  La La Land knows exactly what to do: Sing and dance.

Viewed Dec. 11, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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