There was a moment back in the 1970s, sometime before “Grease” came out, when the image of people bursting into song and dance in the middle of a motion picture wasn’t simply corny and antiquated; it had come to seem downright strange. Not any more. Our era is immersed in retro musical culture, and it has been for a while — from the visionary postmodern pop swoon of “Moulin Rouge!” to the online resurgence of music video to the high-camp a cappella sincerity of “Glee” and the “Pitch Perfect” films. So what does it take to make a musical today look unabashedly exotic?
Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” which opened the Venice Film Festival on a voluptuous high note of retro glamour and style, is the most audacious big-screen musical in a long time, and — irony of ironies — that’s because it’s the most traditional. In his splashy, impassioned, shoot-the-moon third feature, Chazelle, the 31-year-old writer-director of “Whiplash,” pays virtuoso homage to the look and mood and stylized trappings of the Hollywood musicals of the ’40s and, especially, the ’50s (glorious soundstage spectacles of star-spangled rapture), with added shades of Jacques Demy and “New York, New York.” A lot of people still find old musicals corny or think (mistakenly) that they’re quaint. Yet the form remains stubbornly alive in the bones of our culture. That’s why it feels so right, in “La La Land,” to see a daring filmmaker go whole hog in re-creating a lavish studio-system musical, replete with starry nights and street lamps lighting up the innocence of soft-shoe romance, and two people who were meant for each other literally dancing on air.
“La La Land” is set in contemporary Los Angeles, but its heart and soul are rooted in the past, and so are its characters: Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a sleek jazz pianist in silk ties who’s a cranky purist about what he listens to, what he plays, and where he plays it, and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress and playwright who’s deep into the magic of the old movie stars, though she’s a tad less obsessive about her fixation. She works as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot and is always cutting out of work to get to auditions; if one of them ever resulted in her landing an acting job, she’d probably be ecstatic no matter what it was. These two meet, scuffle, and fall in love, and they do it through a series of song-and-dance numbers, composed by Justin Hurwitz (the lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), that are tenderly shocking in their catchy anachronistic beauty. The film’s score is such a melodious achievement that there are moments it evokes the bittersweet majesty of George Gershwin.
The movie opens with one of the most extraordinary sequences in years: a musical number, set in the middle of a morning drive-time traffic jam along a vast stretch of L.A. freeway, that is all done in one shot, in the look-ma-no-hands! tradition of the famous openings of “Touch of Evil” or “The Player.” Chazelle’s camera glides and twirls with astonishing choreographic intricacy among the passengers on their way to work, as they emerge, one by one, from their cars and flip and dance on top of them, fusing into the chorus of a song called “Another Day of Sun.” Cinematically, the sequence makes the impossible look easy, and it suggests a “gotta see” factor that could help to turn “La La Land” into a prestige novelty hit. In its way, though, the sequence, with its giddy optimism, sets up certain emotional expectations. The movie has a lot of time to get moodier, and it ultimately does. Yet Chazelle, by staging this number with so much seductive pizazz, taps our hunger to return to — and stay inside — an enchanted romantic universe.
Sebastian and Mia are among the freeway drivers, and they’re introduced, after a flurry of angry horn honks, by flipping each other the bird, at which point the film travels into Mia’s life: her bedroom with its posters of “Lilies of the Field” and “The Black Cat,” her three glam roommates, and a party that leads to another all-in-one-take musical number (or close enough to it — there are a couple of cuts). Then, finally, Mia is standing there, a little desolate, on the street, and she hears a lonely piano and heads into the bar the music is coming from, and the whole image fades to darkness (except for her), as she lays her eyes on… him. Across a crowded room. A stranger playing the piano. Except that the look on her face tells you he’s no stranger at all. She’s not just staring — she’s falling. That’s the sublimity of Old Hollywood, where we believed that it could happen just like this.
When Sebastian gets up from the piano, he brushes by Mia, nearly hitting her (we learn why later on), and the film then rotates into his life, and we see how deliciously parallel the two are: old-school dreamers trapped in a world of entertainment commerce that’s designed to crush the life out of you. They reunite at a pool party, where he’s playing synth-keyboards in a tacky ’80s cover band. He’s been fired from the club (by J.K. Simmons, winkingly reprising the hanging-judge hostility of his Oscar-winning performance in “Whiplash”), and Mia hasn’t forgiven him for literally giving her the cold shoulder. But that means they’re ready for that old-time Hollywood religion, when two lucky people get to discover what the audience already knows: that the reason they “don’t like” each other is that they already love each other. They just need to figure it out.
The two take a stroll, over to a view of L.A.’s glittering carpet of lights that merges into the pastel twilight, and Chazelle stages a gorgeous scene in which they sit, and talk, and start dancing, just the way actors did on sets in the 1950s. The sheer beauty of the staging creates a calm logic of devotion. These two belong together because Gosling, his slight edge of malice dipped in honey, and Stone, her vivacity cut by a pensive awareness, create a teasing erotic connection, but mostly they belong together because… they dance like this. That’s called the poetry of the 20th century, and the reverent way that Chazelle and his two actors revive it is a delicate and moving thing. Gosling and Stone click together as effervescently as they did in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” At the Griffith Observatory, where Sebastian and Mia go after having just seen it in “Rebel Without a Cause,” they enter the planetarium and are swept up into the stars, and it’s a transcendently goofy, gorgeously blissed-out moment.
The movie needs a complication, of course, and once Sebastian and Mia become a couple, it gets one, in the form of a question: How are either of these people going to make good on their dream? Sebastian wants to open a club, but the kind of music he obsesses over is ripe for a museum. Almost no one is going to shell out to hear it. But it’s not until he lands a paycheck gig with his old musician colleague, played by a charmingly no-nonsense John Legend, that he starts to listen to reason. He’s got to earn a living, and he knows it, so he submits to being part of a commercial pop-jazz band in which he stands in front of screaming crowds and plays funk synthesizer lines that sound just a little bit greasy.
“La La Land” starts as a twinkly fantasy of sophisticated innocence, cut with a touch of modern L.A. sass (especially in Mia’s casually cruel audition scenes). In its second half, though, the film gives itself over to a slightly murky version of the art-vs.-commerce, how-to-hold-onto-your-dream theme. Should Sebastian even be in this band? Oddly, it’s Mia who suddenly says that he shouldn’t (she’s bothered by his relentless touring schedule), and the two get into a fight about it. It’s portrayed as one of those things that just happens between a couple, but given that Sebastian was trying to step up and grow up, on some basic level it’s a little hard to buy that Mia is now the purist. But then, it turns out that her own purity is going to take her far. She just needs a little prodding. Emma Stone, in a luminous performance, is by turns plucky, furious, hopeful, distraught, and devoted, and when she sings the wistful ballad “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” she is every inch a star.
As their fortunes start to seesaw, the film acquires some of the stormy turbulence of “A Star Is Born,” as well as glimmers of the doubt and disconnection of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” All of which can feel just a bit discordant. Chazelle wants to make a musical that celebrates the classic Hollywood vision of love as spiritual perfection. But he also wants to make an age-of-alienation love story that undercuts the old simplicities. He has the right to do both; that’s what “Moulin Rouge!” did. But if Chazelle sticks to the bittersweet truth of the story he’s telling, there’s a part of you that wants to see him shoot the works, to make good on that opening sequence by topping it. “La La Land” isn’t a masterpiece (and on some level it wants to be). Yet it’s an elating ramble of a movie, ardent and full of feeling, passionate but also exquisitely controlled. It winds up swimming in melancholy, yet its most convincing pleasures are the moments when it lifts the audience into a state of old-movie exaltation, leading us to think, “What a glorious feeling. I’m happy again.”