The friction between art and life is director Damien Chazelle's ongoing obsession. It's a fine thing to ponder, though I didn't much care for his 2014 melodrama Whiplash, which worked up an overblown froth from the daffy proposition that you can bully a fledgling musician into becoming a genius drummer.
La La Land, a frankly commercial but rapturous ode to art, love, and my much-maligned home town of Los Angeles, grows more organically out of Chazelle's charming 2009 debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Worked up from his thesis short film (also a musical love story between two creative types in search of a muse) Guy and Madeline was modest in scope and shot in black-and-white. La La Land is a full-service throwback to the Golden Age musical, transposed with lashings of romantic melancholy to a contemporary Los Angeles decked out in primary-colored plumage. Since we seem to have lost the habit of big-screen glamour, the extravagance is welcome.
Lavishly shot to mimic the grandeur of Cinemascope and with a nostalgia-soaked score composed by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, La La Land brings us a city disproportionately inhabited by frustrated dreamers like Mia (Stone) a studio backlot barista and aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Gosling), a jazz purist seething over what he takes to be his eternal fate tickling out Christmas jingles in the kind of eatery where no one notices the pianist. Mia and Sebastian keep running into one another at pool parties and cliff-tops with twinkly nocturnal views. Once they get over the statutory opening hostilities, the two succumb to chemistry and shack up together in the kind of generic abode every arriving Angeleno will recognize as the starter rental with ghastly blinds.
Yin and yang fuel both the romance and the lovers' search for a story to tell the world. Sebastian's a traditionalist who wants to keep jazz unsullied by commercial pop, while Mia neglects the one-woman show she's writing in favor of fruitless auditions for bit parts in second-rate television. There's a lot of fairly disposable moping around as the two discover that following their respective bliss may exact its price in love and solvency. Then again, I've yet to come across an award-worthy musical plot, and who cares? This fine romance really takes off when Stone, a vision in wafty Thirties frocks, straps on her dancing shoes and whirls her beau around town. And who'd have thought, when Gosling first blazed off the screen as an angry young Jew turned neo-Nazi skinhead in Henry Bean's acclaimed but little-seen 2001 drama, The Believer, that he'd end up as a broody romantic lead with surly charm to burn? Though La La Land doffs its cap primarily to Singin' in the Rain, Gosling doesn't do genial with any degree of comfort. More Cary Grant than Gene Kelly, his Sebastian combines grumpy with fast-talking suave, which makes him a perfect match for Stone's peppery but tender-hearted Rosalind Russell.
Together they make a great Fred and Ginger, fluidly tripping and tapping around a city that, from its show-stopping opening dance sequence on the tops of cars stranded in a freeway traffic jam, offers a rebuke to every glib put-down of Los Angeles as an ugly, slapped-together string of nothing-you'd-call-a-neighborhoods where no one walks, let alone trips the light fantastic. Angelenos who long ago tired of seeing our city summarized by waving palms and gang warfare will give thanks for choreographer Mandy Moore's fanciful levitation sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory's beautiful planetarium, and for the night-lit vistas of murals, mini-malls and dive bars that turn the landscape into a moody wonderland for love, loss and tooling around on foot.
If you're white, that is. For a movie that seeks to reconcile the old with the new, La La Land's vision of L.A.'s ethnic mix is strangely attenuated once the multi-culti ensemble opening number is out of the way. African-American musician John Legend is shoe-horned into a sub-plot as Sebastian's friend and market-driven boss, who somehow ends up as a member of his band. But Chazelle's Los Angeles is glaringly empty of Latinos, who now outnumber whites and form a pioneering force in the city's vibrant artistic life — especially its song and dance.