Long regarded as quaint at best, obsolete at worst, the musical nonetheless refuses to curl up its twinkle toes and die. The likes of Evita, Moulin Rouge!, Chicago, the Pitch Perfect movies and TV’s Glee have all hitched sudden breaths to interrupt the decades-long death rattle. And now, wunderkind Damien Chazelle follows up his breakout hit Whiplash with the vivacious La La Land.
Set in contemporary Los Angeles, this glorious throwback to both the MGM musicals of the ’40s and ’50s (such as Singin’ in the Rain and An American In Paris) plus Jacques Demy’s sublime, bittersweet French fancies of the ’60s (such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort) kicks off with cinema’s most memorable traffic jam since Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend. It’s captured in a freewheeling tracking shot to rival the opening gambits of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and Robert Altman’s The Player.
La La Land is that kind of movie – in love with other movies. Swooping, pirouetting, the camera picks out drivers on a gridlocked flyover as they spring from their vehicles for a synchronised song-and-dance number that grows ever more elaborate and elated until viewers’ hearts can’t help but join in with all this cartwheeling.
What follows never demonstrates quite the same jazz-hands pizazz, but that’s no bad thing. Instead we’re treated to something altogether more tender and melancholy. The journey begins as we follow wannabe actress Mia (Emma Stone) to a party and later, all alone, into a bar, lured by sad, sweet piano music.
It would make for a gorgeous meet-cute if the pianist didn’t barge past her as she approaches, and if they hadn’t crossed paths already, their cars jammed end to end on that clogged freeway, where they flipped each other the bird.
The pianist is Seb (Ryan Gosling), and Chazelle rewinds from the moment he bursts past Mia to show us just how he got from the flyover to this point, making us privy to his dream of one day opening his own jazz club. Fate determines that Seb and Mia will meet again, and tumble into love. But that’s the easy part…
No lesser talents than Francis Ford Coppola (One From the Heart) and Scorsese (New York, New York) have been here before, freighting Golden Era-style musicals with anguish, resentment and failure. But for all their joys (and sorrows), those films didn’t have Justin Hurwitz’s numbers, by turns buoyant, bombastic, flirtatious, nostalgic and mournful.
They also didn’t have a career-best Stone, with eyes bigger than a Studio Ghibli heroine. Or an A-game Gosling, summoning all of his chronic cool, sardonic smirks and heart-melting charm, then tossing in the goofball humour he found on The Nice Guys for good measure. In Crazy Stupid, Love these stars’ chemistry was palpable; here it damn near knocks your socks off.
Both Stone and Gosling can carry a tune (rather sickeningly, given all their other gifts), with any splinters in their voices only adding to the ardour and fragility. They also dance beautifully, making up in style and elegance what their choreographed routines lack in complexity.
Like Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, this is a musical about feeling, not finish, and a magic-hour soft-shoe shuffle backdropped by the glimmering lights of LA is impossibly romantic.
With its vivid lensing, colour-coded costumes and striking production design that glides from pepped-up naturalism to Technicolor soundstage spectacle, La La Land brims with such indelible moments. Like his protagonists, Chazelle shoots for the stars, at one point even allowing Mia and Seb to shake off gravity as they visit Griffith Observatory so they can dance amid dazzling constellations.
And yet this is also a movie that serves up slanging matches, heartache and, for Mia, a soul-baring audition to match Naomi Watts’ unforgettable showcase in Mulholland Drive. It also never loses sight of the sacrifices that go into attaining a dream. In this sense, La La Land complements Whiplash.
While the intensity is dialled back from that movie’s incessant verbal volleys and occasional physical abuse, there is real emotional punishment on display.
Already the darling of the Venice, Toronto and London Film Festivals, it remains to be seen if La La Land can similarly dazzle multiplex audiences and make good on its early favourite status at the 2017 Oscars. Let’s hope so – it’s a sophisticated, fervent movie, at once old and new, joyous and heartbreaking, personal and universal. Sing it from the rooftops.