These are the images of Los Angeles that have come to define American cinema’s front yard: sparkling lights stretched out to the horizon, as seen from the Hollywood Hills; cars lined up like ants, slowly forcing their ways ahead in an epic but beautiful freeway traffic jam; a frenzy of costumed extras, movie stars and hurried crew members shuffling between the hulking sound stages of a movie lot.
As seen on the big screen, at least, the City of Angels is a magical place, filled with its challenges, sure, but also endless possibilities and the overarching promise of dreams coming true.
It’s a picture filmmakers have propagated since time immemorial, a valentine to show business itself, and yet filmmaker Damien Chazelle renders it anew in “La La Land,” an original musical that pays tribute to the city and all it represents.
Here’s a movie that touches on all those LA staples and amplifies the sense of wonder: where drivers sing and dance their way out of cars in one of those classic slowdowns, Griffith Observatory plays host to a romantic dance soaring into the planetarium’s night sky and a main character strolls along the Hermosa Beach Pier, whistling and softly singing: “City of stars, are you shining just for me?”
Throw in Chazelle’s concentrated efforts to resurrect the old MGM style of musical moviemaking, complete with elaborately stylized numbers and vibrant colors that practically glow in the moonlight, and it’s all almost too pretty for its own good.
But it’s been made with such a preternatural aptitude for this all-but-lost mode of cinema, and it stars such likable and charismatic actors in Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, that very often Chazelle achieves the intended effect of sweeping up his audience in the glamour of it all.
Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop on a studio lot and desperately seeking the proverbial big break. Gosling’s Sebastian is a jazz purist, a gifted piano player who fancies himself a serious artist but can’t escape the inexorable pull of commerce. They meet, they fall in love, they work on their art and it’s all romantic and perfect until, well, it isn’t anymore.
Chazelle seamlessly integrates earthbound touches including Mia’s humiliating auditions and other details that place the movie within the parameters of real contemporary life in Los Angeles as well as the timeless, idealized image of it. It makes for an engaging interplay, and the movie offers something approaching substance in the ways the dichotomy plays out.
The head and heart of “La La Land,” however, remain inexorably in the clouds, where everything seems prettier and more filled with promise. These days, that’s not a bad place to be.