Damien Chazelle’s third feature after last year’s quasi-musical Whiplash and 2009’s gritty pastiche of MGM musicals Guy and Madeleine on a Park Branch opens in a traffic jam on a highway in Los Angeles. All of the (mostly young) commuters jump out of their cars and begin a high-energy dance number, Another Day of Sun. This very first sequence tells you exactly where you are: right in the heart of movie-musical wonderland.
Both Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian and Emma Stone’s Mia live in a world of nostalgia. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who plays show tunes in a bar where nobody listens to him. His real dream is to open a jazz club where “real music” will be played. Mia frequently takes breaks from her job to go for auditions from which she almost never gets a call-back. The best part about her job is that the café she works for is on the Warner Bros studio lot and is right opposite the balcony that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman made famous in Casablanca.
A series of chance encounters sets their relationship into motion. They fall in love under starry skies and romance each other by tap dancing seated on a park bench. But their fairy tale-like love story is underlined with melancholy. Sebastian eventually grows up and takes a job in a successful band playing music he doesn’t like while encouraging Mia to finish and stage a one-woman show about life in her tiny hometown. Like Whiplash, the central conflict of La La Land is between creating art and selling out, between striving for success and being doomed to eternal failure.
If there were no mobile phones in La La Land, you could be forgiven for believing that the film takes place in the past. Gosling and Stone both have faces that recall the larger-than-life features of classic film stars. And Sebastian and Mia would could easily have been characters in the 1930s’ musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Or Stanley Donen’s 1952 homage to those movies in Singin’ in the Rain. Or from the vibrant world of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).
Chazelle directs the film with the movie-geek obsession of Quentin Tarantino and things could have easily gone wrong with an over reliance on callbacks to those classic films. But he is able to maintain enough distance from his influences to infuse the story with touches of realism that ground it while at the same time maintaining a sense of playful whimsy that made its forebears so successful.