Hot damn, Damien Chazelle knows how to end a movie. Whiplash, the best movie of 2014, ended with one hell of a bang, a rebellious drumming extravaganza that hit an insane number of climactic character beats while also working incredibly well of sheer spectacle alone. Chazelle’s latest, La La Land, similarly sticks the landing, and its final ten minutes left me an absolute wreck. In that final act, Chazelle brings together two hours of somewhat meandering story and turns what looks like a curtain call into an emotional crescendo. If you subscribe to the school of moments-make-a-movie, La La Land is probably the best picture of the year. But while the rest of the movie builds beautifully to that last hurrah, its less engaging than one might expect, with most of the musical numbers working just well enough and the plot mechanics feeling all too familiar.
La La Land opens with a big musical number, as commuters hop out of their cars in L.A. to sing a sunny ditty about their dreams to make it big, putting a smile on their professional anxiety. It’s a fun sequence, if not a bit over-hyped, but after that and an opening number for Stone at a Hollywood party, La La Land turns into much less of a theatrical musical than advertised. It wouldn’t be a Chazelle film without a reliance on music, but only on four or so occasions throughout does it call on its characters to sing (at least in a non-diegetic fashion; on a related note, word of the day: Diegesis). This might disappoint some of the musical theater fans out there, but it works for the film. In their first real meeting, stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone get to connect through singing in an adorable and adorably rickety meet-cute (they aren’t quite Rogers and Astaire). But their second big coupley moment is entirely instrumental, and finds Chazelle at his most directorially creative. And it works perfectly for Gosling and Stone, who have an immediate chemistry that the entire film is built around. Stone in particular fleshes out a familiar character type in interesting ways, becoming the true beating heart of the film. Even though the title portends to be about Hollywood as a whole, the film is intimately focused on these two characters, to the point where the third-billed actor has maybe two minutes of screen time. The tight focus helps, as even when the movie loses its grip here and there, the core relationship at the centre is always believable and worth rooting for.
La La Land is nakedly in love with the past, and some of its more interesting moments come from mixing old-fashioned tropes with the new (such as key fob woes translating to spontaneous tap dancing). Chazelle also has occasional unromanticized streaks, letting his camera focus on the cracked sidewalks that could come from anywhere in the world (and, you know, that whole traffic jam musical number). But this is a movie where an attempt to modernize jazz is mocked (if not utterly dismissed), and Chazelle seems to take that sentiment to heart. While it modernizes some old tropes, it doesn’t reinvent them, and comes up a bit short of a revolution (which is a lot to ask of any movie, but the buzz around La La Land earns the request). It takes more time in the middle than it should, and by the end, maybe believes in the dream of Hollywood a bit too much itself. While not as optimistic as its cast of commuters, this is certainly a less cynical film than Whiplash was. But, once again, I keep coming back to that final act in my head. Even if its a bit of an uneven journey, the destination is an absolute triumph.
La La Land (2016)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)