The first time I heard the name Damien Chazelle, it was at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Filmmaker Jason Reitman was there as the producer of an under-the-radar short film called “Whiplash,” starring J.K. Simmons as a gnarly band instructor. “This kid is talented,” Reitman said of the film’s young director. I blew it off.
A year later, the feature version of “Whiplash” exploded out of Sundance and then everyone knew the name Damien Chazelle. By the time the awards season rolled around, his tight little potboiler about a battle of wills between a drummer and his instructor was a Cinderella possibility in the Oscar race. But no one expected it to walk away with three Academy Awards until it did exactly that.
If “Whiplash” was the warning shot, “La La Land” is the heavy artillery. A love letter to Los Angeles inspired by the musical stylings of Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “The Young Girls of Rochefort”), Chazelle’s latest is the kind of good that raises the hairs on the back of your neck until you can only think to yourself, simply, “This kid is talented.”
“La La Land” — which stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in a romantic pairing that almost feels chemically balanced to perfection — is about reaching. It’s a reminder to the stability-clinging pragmatist in us all that the painful, often self-destructive act of dreaming is the very elixir of life. It’s really quite beautiful, and as another Oscar season begins, this time under a dark cloud of controversy, movies like this take their natural place: Escapist wonderment that reminds audiences why they bother staring at flickering images on a wall in the first place.
The Venice Film Festival opening night selection has been a slightly mixed bag for Oscar prospects in recent years. Many (“The Ides of March,” “Everest”) have missed, others (“Gravity,” “Birdman”) have spectacularly hit. “La La Land” feels like the easiest bet of them all, a film about artists told creatively within a well-worn genre, that seizes your emotions in its final moments and sends you out of the theater on a cloud.
It already seems like that feeling will be in short supply this season. Films about tragedy, persecution and adversity dot the landscape. A handful of titles — “Collateral Beauty,” “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “Hidden Figures,” “Lion” — will provide the feel-good release Academy voters will be looking for, but they’ll all likely dance to the rhythm of “La La Land.” This is a contender across the board.
Picture and screenplay recognition feel like a given. Chazelle was no doubt close to a directing berth for “Whiplash” and he’ll be back in the thick of it this time, too. Stone, a supporting nominee for “Birdman,” is so casually brilliant I almost want to say at this grotesquely early date she’s the one to beat for best actress. Certainly of the films that have been seen this year, she blows the competition away.
Gosling could struggle in the lead actor race depending on what the season gives us. Male roles in these kinds of movies can fail to penetrate, but the idea of the tandem makes it hard to nominate just one.
Below the line, Linus Sandgren’s photography is vibrant, but it’s the dazzling camera movement that brings the film to life in exciting ways. Oscar-winning editor Tom Cross’ work piecing the various musical numbers together stays out of its own way, but is no less impressive, and the design elements — particularly David Wasco’s expressionistic sets — give the movie unique definition.
Two of “La La Land’s” six original songs are sure to be included in the final Oscar tally (the maximum allowed for one film under the Academy’s rules and regulations). Anything from a lively ensemble number setting the tone in a Los Angeles traffic jam, to a thematically rich ode to the city called back throughout the score, to an electrifying John Legend-fronted pop track could find a spot. But reserve one now for “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).”
Already showcased in a teaser trailer, the song — written by composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — provides Stone’s big emotional moment in the final act. Musically, it serves as an embodiment of the film’s themes. Narratively, it’s cleverly used as a storytelling device that is sure to draw tears.
So: GOOD MOVIE. As many as 12 nominations could be on the table. And it doesn’t feel like some prestige package hustled through a studio system and into the race to stroke someone’s ego. It feels like the passionate work of an artist eager to tell a story and gifted enough to do it with style and class.
This kid is talented.