‘La La Land’ Review: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone Trip the Light Fantastic

In his follow-up to “Whiplash,” writer-director Damien Chazelle serves up a recognizable Los Angeles that’s also a singing, dancing land of dreams

La La Land Emma Stone Ryan Gosling
Courtesy of TIFF

Film buffs still wax nostalgic about MGM sending directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly to shoot the musical “On the Town” on location in New York City in 1949, a nearly unprecedented move for a genre that was always soundstage-bound. But during its glory days, MGM never exploited its home base of Los Angeles in the same way, not even in Donen and Kelly’s Hollywood-centric “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Sure, that classic film offers up a splashy Grauman’s Chinese movie premiere, and the canyons that have served as the backdrop to a thousand Westerns, but it never captures that uniquely Southern California atmosphere, where the blisteringly bright sunlight fights its way through a hazy sky to deliver its glow to the hills, the swimming pools and the clogged freeways.

That glow, and one of those freeways, turn up in the opening number of Damien Chazelle‘s “La La Land” — opening the Venice Film Festival tonight — an ambitious new musical that turns a very recognizable Los Angeles into a singing, dancing land of dreams. In the way that French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Demy made the locales of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort” into workaday natural settings that were also vividly colored backdrops for sudden bursts of music, the Los Angeles of “La La Land” doesn’t spare us the traffic jams, but it also allows its characters to open the back of a stalled truck to reveal a jazz combo.

Besides offering a vibrant musical number, that highway snarl also introduces us to our young lovers: struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz obsessive Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). It’s a very L.A. encounter — she’s oblivious to the other cars moving, distracted by reading her sides for an audition; he honks at her as he passes her and merges into moving traffic (as she flips him off). He’s no more polite the next time they meet; Mia’s moved by hearing him play jazz piano, but he rebuffs her when she tries to compliment him, since playing his own music, rather than Christmas carols, just got him fired from the gig. (Both meetings reveal that for each of these people, the work always comes first.)

The third time’s a charm for these two, and after performing a song and dance together about how not into each other they are, they pretty much can’t stay out of each other’s arms. But even in a musical, the course of young love never did run smooth. Sebastian has to choose between his dreams of opening a club featuring serious jazz or earning good money to play mainstream pap in a popular band; between his touring and Mia’s newfound commitment to writing — a direction he encouraged — the very geography of their work threatens to undo the passion they share.

These conflicts are taken more seriously than they might have been in an old-school musical comedy, but then “La La Land” doesn’t entirely yoke itself to the format. I went back and watched Chazelle’s first feature, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” and while it, too, bills itself as an old-school musical, it’s more a mumblecore movie with two or three numbers in it.

“La La Land” goes much further in having the characters express themselves through song and dance, and while I would have liked one more song during the boy-loses-girl segment, this is a movie that will more than scratch the musical-lover’s itch.

TCM addicts will swoon over that traffic-jam number, not to mention a dance sequence that delightfully defies gravity. The vocal duets between Stone and Gosling are charming, even though they both have singing voices that might diplomatically be called “naturalistic.” (Similarly, the songs by composer Justin Hurwitz and Broadway lyricists Pasek and Paul aren’t traditional show-stoppers, but they sneak up on you by the second reprise.) The final segment, a fantastical exploration of roads not taken, ranks with the poignant ending of “Umbrellas,” and that’s high praise for lovers of glamorous cinematic melancholy.

Even when the orchestra isn’t swelling, there’s plenty to enjoy here. Gosling and Stone’s powerful chemistry is as palpable as it was in “Crazy Stupid Love” — they were that film’s sole selling point — and each of them conveys their character’s love of the arts and drive to succeed. (Stone, in particular, gives great fake-audition to a series of half-interested casting directors.)

Chazelle skillfully presents Los Angeles itself as both fantasy and reality: Movie-mad Mia works at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, surrounded by fake storefronts and barns and the window where Bogie kissed Bergman in “Casablanca.” (In something of a double-blind, “La La Land” created a fake coffee-shop set rather than using the Burbank studio’s real “Friends”-themed Starbucks.) In a sense, this film allows us to see what James L. Brooks‘ similarly themed “I’ll Do Anything” might have looked like had it not chopped out all its musical moments.

Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“American Hustle”) has a gift for making the real and the artificial look interchangeable, in a way that will feel familiar and recognizable to anyone who has spent time in L.A. If you’ve ever seen “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” you know that the city itself is made up of movie sets; it’s no surprise, then, that Sebastian and Mia drive to the Griffith Park Observatory after they’ve watched it on screen at a repertory screening of “Rebel Without a Cause.”

And even if this is a movie musical whose characters are obsessed with music (old-school jazz) and the movies (classic Hollywood), “La La Land” constantly juggles the past and the present: Sebastian might be a retro jazzbo to the core, from his musical tastes to his convertible, and the film might contain the first opening-credits CinemaScope joke since 1956’s “The Girl Can’t Help It,” but there are some wonderfully of-the-moment gags, including one involving valets and Priuses, not to mention a tap number (on Mulholland Drive, at sunset) that gets interrupted by a familiar iTunes ringtone.

The musical is as malleable and eclectic a genre as any other, and Chazelle reminds us how effectively it can be applied to intimate moments as well as huge ones. When Sebastian and Mia woo each other, the soaring music behind them seems just right; when Mia and her girlfriends stride in tandem to a Hollywood party, swinging their skirts and asserting their feminine power, it’s like a glorious cross between “West Side Story” and one of those signature Tarantino shots of tough guys walking toward the camera.

Fans of musicals will adore this sparkling cinematic love letter, and if others are slow to embrace it, Chazelle’s screenplay sees them coming. “You don’t think it’s too nostalgic?” asks Mia, regarding her play. “That’s the point!” responds Sebastian. Mia: “And if people don’t like it?” Sebastian: “F— ’em!”