Damien Chazelle loves jazz. It would seem, after writing and directing three films dedicated to the music, it’s his entire life’s purpose to renew interest in the genre. First there was “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” a grainy black-and-white musical, then his breakout film, “Whiplash,” a tale of an aspiring jazz drummer’s stunning descent into madness at the hands of a psychotic instructor. And now, there’s “La La Land,” a jazz musical and lovely throwback to the ’40s and ’50s films of Gene Kelly, as well as the ’60s wave of French musicals. It’s a film so delightful — and with an ending sequence so spectacular — that it’s impossible to resist its grasp.
“La La Land” is set in Hollywood over the course of one year as two struggling artists — Mia Dolan (Emma Stone, “Birdman”), an actress, and Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling, “The Nice Guys”), a jazz pianist — repeatedly cross paths and fall in love. Chazelle’s Hollywood is a bottleneck of talent. The opening of the film is a technically audacious dance number on the jammed Los Angeles Freeway, with aspiring singers, actors, writers and everyone in between literally jumping out of their cars at rapidly changing opportunities. Mia and Sebastian are consumed by their own troubles; Mia never finds success in auditions, while Sebastian wants to revive his beloved genre by opening a jazz club, but doesn’t have a steady job. The duo’s mutual commiseration over their craft blossoms into love.
The middle third of the film meanders through Mia and Sebastian’s romance as their relationship starts to strain. The music dies out as Sebastian goes on the road with a band started by an old friend, Keith, played by distinguished R&B artist John Legend, and the film begins to feel a bit slow. But on second viewing, the middle segment plays more as an eloquent rubato, hastening and slowing to fit the narrative’s needs. The film doesn’t drag; it’s deliberate. Nothing is particularly unnecessary (in fact, if anything I wanted to see more of Mia’s struggles to launch her one-woman show), and with acting as sublime as that by Stone and Gosling, it’s pretty hard to feel bored.
Chazelle’s writing is excellent, taking the film from tenderness to the heights of comedy in mere minutes, if not seconds. The characters, especially the secondary and tertiary characters, are fully developed within a line or two, but all are endlessly complex. As for Mia and Sebastian, there’s a bit of an imbalance; the film may begin with Mia, and we may see the world through her eyes, but Sebastian is given more of an opportunity to share his craft. We see him play constantly, even an entire performance (of a phenomenal song written and performed by Legend) with The Messengers, Keith’s band, while Mia’s one-woman show is omitted.
Chazelle shot the film in Cinemascope, a grand widescreen technology predominant in the 1950s, when Hollywood churned out large-scale epics one after the other. It’s a great idea in “La La Land,” a film that has a fair amount of spectacle, but even more intimacy. These characters dream in Cinemascope. Mia sleeps under a giant poster of Ingrid Bergman. Sebastian plans to name his jazz club “Chicken on a Stick” after Charlie Parker’s favorite meal, and he collects the overlooked artifacts that dotted his idols’ lives.
Like the film’s rose-colored vision of jazz, the film industry is in great jeopardy. The mid-range budget film is dying and streaming and television are both supplanting the theater. But “La La Land” may be its saving grace, or at least a herald of things to come. “La La Land” is a film that demands to be seen, and reseen and reseen, in the theater, with bright primary reds and blues highlighted by Linus Sandgren’s (“Joy”) soaring cinematography, and an exquisite soundtrack by Chazelle’s college friend Justin Hurwitz (“Whiplash”). Hurwitz’s music, like the couple dancing around a Foucault pendulum twirling in a wonderful sequence in Griffith Observatory, swings between two poles, or two souls, endlessly in love.