The epic opening scene of “La La Land” is a long-take roaming camera song and dance number set amid a sea of drivers stranded on a Los Angeles freeway overpass.
A song burbles up on a radio, the driver sings along, leaves her car, is joined by legions of others. As they promenade through a Cinemascope fantasy of one of the inconveniences of life in America’s Dream Factory, we meet our leads — aspiring actress Mia, aspiring jazz club owner Sebastian.
And they meet “cute.” Fingers are exchanged in traffic. It’s the sort of sequence that marks itself as “impressive” even if we don’t know that it took three weeks to shoot, days and days of rehearsing and re-takes in LA’s familiar early morning (so they can block the streets) light.
But there’s an emotional distance, a chill, that hangs over the film from the old school opening titles through this bit of non-digital movie magic. It takes almost half an hour to dissipate as we settle in on the leading lady (Emma Stone) and leading man (Ryan Gosling), discover each can sing and dance enough to get by. And that sets the tone for the whole movie, an old-fashioned showbiz musical that lumbers when it’s supposed to fly, and groans a bit under the weight of its own ambition.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) reaches for the stars, and cast the picture beautifully. But this throwback musical (songs by Justin Hurwitz) lurches along on show business cliches in between dreamy flights of filmed fancy.
There’s magic here, and wistful whimsy and melancholy, enough to warrant seeing it. Does it reinvent or improve upon “Singin’ in the Rain”, “A Star is Born”, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and the legions of classic films and musicals it references, borrows from? No.
The overarching theme here is nostalgia — for movie musicals, LA as “Dreamland,” the siren call of showbiz fame, and perhaps that’ll be enough for some.
Mia makes her living as a backlot barrista, serving coffee and snacks to studio folk just across the street from part of the “Casablanca” set. Sebastian, “Seb,” gets by with gigs playing Christmas piano at a bar run by J.K. Simmons, who fires him for his wild improvisations when all the owner wants is “Deck the Halls.”
Mia witnesses the firing and experiences the jazz purist’s brusqueness first hand. But she has her revenge at an ’80s themed pool party where sunglasses cannot hide the humiliated keyboard player’s true identity.
She can afford a Prius on her paltry salary. He’s rocking a vintage Yank Tank Cadillac convertible. It’ll never work out.
“You’re a real, what’s the word?”
“Knight in shining armor?”
We’ve seen a century of degrading audition sequences, but Stone makes us feel Mia’s humiliation at the callous, distracted and rude dismissal of casting directors. Hers is a dream deferred.
Seb would love to rescue a legendary jazz club from its current state of tapas bar/samba room. What do they have in common? A love of history, and an appreciation for LA’s attitude towards it.
“That’s LA– they worship everything and value nothing.”
Chazelle takes his star-crossed lovers to stereotypical showbiz parties and past the city’s famous neon-bedecked clubs — Formosa, Knickerbocker — and into some of its most famous locations, including the Rialto Theatre and Griffith Park Observatory. They go to classic films and no-longer-smoky jazz rooms, dance in the streets and serenade each other in bittersweet song. Mia and Seb experience the city as a fantasia on their fantasies of what it should be.
And as they strive for their dreams and fall in love, compromises (he plays with a jazz sellout, played by John Legend) and big breaks get in the way of true love.
Stone and Gosling, teamed up for the third time, make a lovely believable couple. There’s not a lot of heat, but they generate a warmth and sweetness that makes the relationship worth rooting for. Stone is all wide-eyed optimism, Gosling a smirking cynic in two-tone shoes
But as he croons the film’s one memorable ballad — “City of Stars”– you can see what she’d fall for, aside from his natural handsome dash. And that makes “La La Land” work.
It’s slow to start and patience-testing in stretches, quite uneven and something of an over-reach. But “La La Land” still manages to conjure up an aspirational city of dreams that to outsiders, really does look like a “City of Stars.” And Stone and Gosling make wonderful singing and dancing tour guides, reminding us of the days when we and Hollywood respected the label “triple threat” (a good actor who can sing and dance) a lot more than we do now.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, J.K. Simmons
Credits:Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. A Summit release.
Running time: 2:08