Damien Chazelle wastes no time in establishing exactly what kind of movie he aims to deliver with La La Land. As opposed to many other modern screen musicals that are coy about their commitment to the genre, Chazelle’s film opens with a full-scale number staged in the midst of a Los Angeles traffic jam, blue sky above and pavement below. There’s no freeing cut to a soundstage or winking implication that the narrative is dipping into a character’s rousing imagination. Instead, there’s a fleet of performers adorned in bright colors singing and dancing and staring right at the audience with feral confidence. This will be fearlessly, unashamedly be a musical, dammit, and the audience is invited but not begged to follow. And why not? La La Land is so spirited and joyful and worldly wise that those who resist it are only cheating themselves.
La La Land follows Mia (Emma Stone, who’s astonishing throughout), a struggling actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician with a self-sabotaging purist streak, as they come together romantically in L.A. They pursue their dreams with a tinge of wariness, a slight but confining certainty that things won’t quite work out. The film operates with the same dose of melancholy pragmatism. For all the charm that cascades off the screen like sparks thrown wildly from a sharpening jig, Chazelle allows that happy endings are never guaranteed. His screenplay emphasizes hopefulness and the rewards that come from perseverance. It also eschews blind romanticism just enough to make the point that things don’t always work out, and maybe — just maybe — the roads not taken are sometimes a diversion from the proper destination anyway.
Chazelle directs the film with a skilled musician’s precise sense of timing. Individual scenes move and shift beautifully, feeling simultaneously natural and artfully choreographed. That description is understandably affixed to the musical numbers but also applies to the moments of plainer narrative. When Sebastian debates the state of his professional and personal existence with his sister (Rosemarie DeWitt), the two perform their own sort of duet, shifting throughout the apartment with a sly physical pointedness that smooths the exposition of the scene. Long takes are used with ebullient grace, and Chazelle know when to err towards subtlety. Of course, he also know when the film would benefit from a jolt of the fantastic, as in a sequence late in the film that reimagines an entire interpersonal history.
Using a tradition assessment of a musical, the next observation would be damning. The songs may be the weakest element of La La Land. With music by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics by the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the songs do their work scene to scene but they also fade from the memory quickly, at least after an initial viewing. While I doubt a quick fade from the consciousness for the songs was a goal, it actually serves the commitment to modernity and innovation that drives the film. The numbers aren’t showstoppers, soliciting appreciative applause that greets an entry that almost sounds like a stand-alone hit. Instead, they are incorporated beautifully into the flow of the film, like strong dialogue. I can’t hum a note of “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” but the image of Stone performing it is indelible, just as my inability to recite her scathing monologue in Birdman doesn’t diminish the impact of the scene. The songs in La La Land are perfectly suited to their individual moments. It could be that’s what truly matters.