La-la land: the mental state of someone who is not aware of what is really happening, and a nickname for the American entertainment industry centered on Los Angeles. These two meanings bleed into each other in director Damien Chazelle’s multi-Oscar-nominated musical, “La La Land,” which is about a state of mind as much as it is a place.
It’s about the mythic dream of LA, that sun-drenched city by the sea where an ambitious unknown can find fame and fortune, much like leading lady Emma Stone herself managed to do. It celebrates romantic escapism, that feeling of liberation that comes from just throwing off the rules of reality and dancing off into the twinkling stars above. It’s a feeling that seems attractive to a lot of people after the sour, dismal, divisive year that was 2016.
Chazelle wastes no time in sweeping us away: He drops us into the temper-frayed grind of a bumper-to-bumper LA traffic jam, only for all the motorists to begin dancing joyously across the highway, leaping and bouncing off auto hoods in one unbelievable continuous shot, like a bastard hybrid of “Nashville” and “Birdman.” The smooth, crane-mounted camerawork by Linus Sandgren captures Mandy Moore’s choreography in an aesthetic that absolutely crushes the hyper-edited phoniness of post-MTV musicals like “Burlesque.”
Ryan Gosling plays a character who feels ripped out of an early Tom Waits song, a jazz-snob pianist named Sebastian who’s frustrated with the crummy gigs and watered-down music he’s playing, and dreams of owning his own club. Stone’s Mia is an aspiring actress struggling through the spirit-killing grind of auditions, and making rent by working as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot.
We, the audience, know they’re going to meet cute, but Chazelle manages to throw us off step here, the first hint that the film is going to be a bit different than its candy-colored, follow-your-dream optimism might indicate. Sure, Mia and Sebastian bond easily over their shared artistic struggles, but will success tear them apart?
Stone and Gosling, in their third film together, display an easy, flirty chemistry, and while being “charming” seems an awfully old-fashioned compliment, they earn it. The duo are playful and relaxed in the musical numbers, and while they’re no Astaire and Rogers, the “just-good-enough” angle works. Gosling’s vocal on “City of Stars,” for example, uses imperfection like Chet Baker did, casting an illusion of casual honesty.
The big question is: What baggage will you bring to “La La Land”? If you view it as a pipe-dream project thrown together in a college dorm room — a tribute to Jacques Demy’s melancholy French musical that most cinema-goers have never even heard of, his 1964 heartbreaker “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” — that somehow managed to land Hollywood stars and a $30 million budget after the director had a breakout indie hit (“Whiplash”), then you’re in for a pleasant surprise. If, however, you go in with the high expectations of a movie that landed 14 Oscar nominations — tied for the most ever with “Titanic” — and has been called the greatest musical since forever, you will likely be disappointed.
Similarly, if you’re tired of Hollywood wallowing in its past glory — “The Artist” springs to mind — you might fare better with the LA hell of “The Neon Demon.” The identity politics curmudgeons have found “La La Land” too white, too male and too straight, but really, people, just how “straight” can a musical be? With zero expectations, you may just find it fun, a heartfelt tribute to old-school movie musicals that’s somehow neither retro-ironic nor camp-twee.
Yet there’s a melancholy to “La La Land” that makes it linger. Recall the line that James Mason as a boozer veteran actor says to starry-eyed Judy Garland in another Hollywood fable, “A Star Is Born” (1954): “You need a sense of timing — an eye for recognizing the big chance when it comes along and grabbing it.”
“La La Land” is about grabbing it, only to open your hand and … poof. Nothing is quite as elusive as what you really want.