Denied a best-picture Oscar for Whiplash, writer-director Damien Chazelle again explores the conflict between ambition and humanity in La La Land, this time turning to the tried-and-true award bait of the self-referential film set in Hollywood. It's a romance, but its lesson is decidedly bittersweet: true love is incompatible with materialism or professional advancement.
Mia (Emma Stone) is a barista on the Warner Brothers backlot whose doe eyes are full of dreams of becoming as famous as the stars who turn heads in her café. She pings from one failed audition to another, hoping to land inane roles in inane projects—"Goldilocks and the Three Bears from the perspective of the bears" and "Dangerous Minds meets The O.C."
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a starving pianist who bought a stool just because Hoagy Carmichael once sat on it. He's a disciple of "pure jazz," daddy-o, but he can't hold down paying gigs at cocktail lounges because he won't stick to the stodgy play list. Jazz may be dying, he says, "but not on my watch."
Mia and Sebastian don't exactly meet cute, but that's soon rectified in a song-and-dance sequence set atop the Hollywood Hills against a pastel sunset backdrop, a throwback to Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen that's eventually interrupted by a ringing cell phone. With love comes inspiration—hers, to write a one-woman play, his, to open a jazz club called "Chicken on a Stick," in homage to Charlie Parker.
At some point, you just give yourself over to the breezy Technicolor charm of La La Land and its star-crossed love story. Steeped in the nostalgia of Hollywood's golden age musicals, this city symphony celebrates Los Angeles's distinctive milieu. Chazelle got the Angels Flight funicular reopened just for filming, and Mia and Sebastian soar into the stars inside the Griffith Observatory planetarium. The setting is a dazzling daydream with a melancholy undercurrent, "a place where they worship everything and value nothing." Chazelle shoots in Cinemascope, using long takes during the musical numbers, starting with a sweeping showstopper set amid the sprawl of the Harbor Freeway.
Gosling and Stone, in their third on-screen pairing, won't be mistaken for Astaire and Rogers, but they ooze chemistry. Gosling never fully inhabits his role, and his transformation from insouciance to besottment feels slapdash, but Stone is luminescent. One moment when a film projector's beam illuminates her face is breathtaking. She has the countenance and the chops of a classic movie actress who is still plumbing the reservoir of her abilities.
In a far-too-brief bit of exposition, a frontman (John Legend) tells Sebastian that jazz is defined by its tension between tradition and revolution. The same is true for cinema. La La Land gloriously mingles various epochs of American filmmaking. The story is pat, with the ersatz quality inherent in genre films. But movies are a journey and a presentation, not just a destination.
This article appeared in print with the headline "All That Jazz."