It starts with a traffic jam, a sweltering ribbon of frustration on a Los Angeles freeway. All of a sudden, a melody emerges from the squalling of horns and the cacophony of competing radio stations, the commuters leap from their cars, and a big, brazenly sincere movie-musical song-and-dance number is underway.
An early verse, sung by a chipper young woman in a yellow dress, is a kind of overture, hinting at the theme of the bittersweet fairy tale to follow. She recalls leaving her hometown boyfriend behind to pursue fame and fortune here in La La Land, a quaint old nickname for Los Angeles that is also the name of Damien Chazelle’s charming new movie.
The ingénue in the yellow dress will vanish from the story, which is concerned with the entwined romantic and creative doings of an actress named Mia (behind the wheel of a Prius) and a jazz pianist named Sebastian (pushing a shiny crimson beater). The kicky opening sequence serves as an audition piece, a mini- “Chorus Line” acquainting us with the crowd from which these two gorgeous faces will emerge. Mia’s face belongs to Emma Stone, Sebastian’s to Ryan Gosling, so you know what I’m talking about.
But even though they’re played by movie stars, Mia and Seb (as he’s sometimes called) have a long way to go. They are still swimming in a teeming pool of strivers and seekers. Every car from Glendale to Santa Monica holds an aspiring artist or performer of some kind or other. If they shared their rides, the commute might be easier and the smog less heavy, but of course part of the point is that each one makes the trip alone.
That first song, one of a bouquet of compositions written for the movie by Justin Hurwitz, is called “Another Day of Sun,” and it is the movie’s way of auditioning for the audience, testing our tolerance for a bold blend of nostalgia and novelty. Can a generation raised on “Glee” and the “High School Musical” franchise and besotted by newfangled stage musicals like “Book of Mormon” and “Hamilton” find room in its heart for a movie that unabashedly evokes “The Young Girls of Rochefort” and “An American in Paris”?
Why not? Chazelle, whose previous features (“Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” and “Whiplash”) were full of music and brash, youthful energy, is a natural showman and a canny craftsman. He wears his influences on his sleeve, but he wears them lightly. For all its echoes and allusions, “La La Land” is too lively and too earnest for mere pastiche. It doesn’t so much look back longingly at past masters like Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Stanley Donen and Jacques Demy as tap into their mojo, insisting on their modernity and its own classicism in the same gesture.
Mia and Seb are throwbacks – if not quite to Ginger and Fred then surely to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney or Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly – but they are also citizens of the present. They are better at acting than the other stuff, able to express emotion in nonmusical scenes with candor and conviction, but a little stiff-limbed and wobbly-voiced when the moment arrives for hoofing and chirping.
Seb’s fussy jazzman antiquarianism is an entirely plausible millennial affectation. His vintage car has a cassette deck in the dashboard, and he lives in a shabby apartment amid stacks of vinyl records and old concert posters. His prized possession is a piano stool that supposedly once belonged to Hoagy Carmichael.
In his approach to work, Seb is a proud purist, perpetually affronted by the prospect of compromise. To pay the rent, he is obliged to take what he regards as demeaning gigs: tickling out Christmas carols and show tunes at a restaurant, doing ’80s pop hits with a knowingly cheesy cover band; touring with a combo fronted by an old friend who has made it big.
That friend, Keith, is played by real-life R&B star John Legend, whose affable participation presents an interesting challenge to Seb’s dogmatic traditionalism. It seems doubtful that Legend would have shown up to perform music that he thought was bad, and Keith’s unapologetic commercialism is less a strawman for Seb’s high-mindedness than a plausible counterargument. The difference between selling out and breaking through is not always clear, and “La La Land” is not so hypocritical as to pretend otherwise.
This is especially true in Mia’s case. She works as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, dashing off to audition for small roles in dubious films and television shows. But, of course, the line between art and junk is also blurry, partly because to qualify for the junk you must be absolutely dedicated to your art. Which Mia is, in a way that magnifies Stone’s extraordinary discipline, poise and naturalness.
The real tension in “La La Land” is between ambition and love, and perhaps the most up-to-date thing about it is the way it explores that ancient conflict. A cynical but not inaccurate way to put this would be to describe it as a careerist movie about careerism. But that would be to slight Chazelle’s real and uncomfortable insight, which is that the drive for professional success is, for young people at the present time, both more realistic and more romantic than the pursuit of boy-meets-girl happily-ever-after. Love is contingent. Art is commitment.
La La Land
Rated: PG-13 for some swearing.
Stars: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, J.K. Simmons, John Legend.