Friday, December 16, 2016

La La Land: (Mostly) breathtaking magic

La La Land (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.16.16

Ten minutes into this film, giddy with excitement, I couldn’t wait to see it again.

Ninety minutes in ... the enthusiasm had waned.

When Mia (Emma Stone) insists that she doesn't care for jazz, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling)
takes her to his favorite club, in order to demonstrate why true jazz can't just be heard,
but must be seen emanating from those who perform it.
At its best, La La Land sparkles with true magic. Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s romantic, music-laden fantasy is a true “sense of wonder” movie akin to Moulin Rouge! or Hugo: a dazzling tour de force that takes full advantage of the medium’s many elements.

It’s also an exhilarating throwback to classic American and French movie musicals, particularly Gene Kelly’s athletically graceful dance spectaculars: Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon and (most particularly) the sort of terpsichorean legerdemain he wove into a creaking floorboard and a stray section of newspaper, in Summer Stock.

Coupled with the luxuriously romantic atmosphere of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Chazelle obviously loves all of these classics, just as he includes more than a few nods to Bob Fosse’s aggressively gymnastic choreography. Chazelle also understands music’s ability to transport us to ethereal elsewheres, and he lives and breathes the toe-tapping, finger-snapping intensity of jazz; he demonstrated that with his mesmerizing directorial breakout, in 2014’s Whiplash.

That film was a grinding endurance test for its young protagonist, as he clashed with a brutal mentor en route to becoming a master drummer. La La Land is a much gentler saga of dreams and dreamers: of young people drawn to Southern California in pursuit of fame and/or artistic satisfaction (not necessarily in that order).

The simple core story is told with the heady, tongue-tickling sparkle and fizz of expensive champagne, Chazelle masterminding a squadron of associates who operate on full throttle: from Linus Sandgren’s opulent cinematography to David Wasco’s enchanting production design, from Tom Cross’ whip-cracking editing to Mary Zophres’ retro-stylish costume design, and Mandy Moore’s breathtaking choreography.

This boy-meets-girl fantasy begins during a Los Angeles freeway traffic jam, and a fleetingly chance encounter between Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). She’s an aspiring actress who can’t get past cattle-call casting sessions, who makes ends meet as a barista and shares a crowded apartment with three other young women. He’s a jazz pianist: a purist who can’t get people to care about real jazz in the 21st century.

Mia’s situation is familiar for its frustration, particularly since she isn’t even granted the courtesy of an uninterrupted audition. Sebastian’s plight is more artistically heartbreaking, because he’s an angrily stubborn holdout in an era when traditional jazz is being buried beneath glitz, glitter and thumping electronic back-beats.

Back in the day, mainstream music fans insisted that they “didn’t like jazz” because it was too dynamic, challenging their notion of melodic convention. These days, that same complaint is directed at the puerile “smooth jazz” that has been flensed of all soul, and turned into 21st century elevator music. Sebastian bleeds over this, Gosling delivering all the angst and frustrated passion of every musician who grieves over how jazz has sold out.

Stone, in turn, radiates equal measures of hope and forlorn disappointment. She naturally twinkles anyway, and it’s a hoot to watch her — so persuasively — play a character who doesn’t quite know how to act yet. Stone always radiates charisma, but she mutes it to reflect Mia’s forlorn self-doubt, exhibited during an audition montage that brings back delightful memories of Dustin Hoffman’s similar plight, in the first act of Tootsie.

Mia and Sebastian eventually connect, their mutual chemistry igniting after a party, while seeking their cars on a quiet street with a killer view of the entire Los Angeles basin. Just as Jean-Pierre Jeunet gave us a Paris that was so much bigger than itself, in Amélie, Chazelle concocts an idealized La La Land that seems composed of sound stages akin to those found on movie studio back lots.

The storyline is constructed in four acts that follow the seasons of a single year, starting with winter and progressing through autumn (this sequence being quite deliberate). A concluding fifth act takes place during a second winter.

Mia and Sebastian fall in love, each becoming the other’s staunchest supporter. Sebastian knows that, eventually, Mia will nail an audition and become a star. She similarly encourages his desire to open a jazz club that caters to like-minded purists ... while insisting that calling it “Seb’s” would be smarter than his first-choice “Chicken on a Stick,” after Charlie Parker’s favorite meal.

Their courtship blossoms against song-and-dance interludes that don’t so much interrupt the narrative flow, as become part of it, as was the case with Moulin Rouge! At times, Chazelle’s film veers toward light opera, with even casual dialog given a melodic cadence.

The songs themselves are deceptive and clever. Justin Horwitz’s orchestral score has the lavish melodic intensity of classic 1950s musicals, but lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — both Broadway veterans — bring considerable bite to these collaborations. When a dejected Mia returns to her apartment after another failure, too depressed to join her roommates at a party, her angst is given words during a perceptive tune titled “Someone in the Crowd.”

Similarly, as Mia and Sebastian connect on that aforementioned quiet street, their sparring unfolds against a song titled “A Lovely Night,” with lyrics that deftly convey the scene’s flirty intensity. Genius stuff.

Nor can mere words describe the film’s dazzling opening scene, with scores of dejected drivers stuck in yet another traffic jam ... until they emerge from their vehicles and break into an ambitious production number, set against a vibrant belter titled “Another Day of Sun.” It’s a jaw-dropping sequence that just gets better ... and better ... and better ... until it literally explodes off the screen.

At some point, you realize that the entire number is unfolding in a single, mind-blowing camera take: a feat of staggering directorial and cinematographic accomplishment.

And therein lies the problem.

This freeway prologue is by far the film’s best, strongest and most dynamic sequence. While it’s an impressively mind-boggling way to open his film, Chazelle never comes close to matching it. To be sure, there’s plenty of charm in subsequent numbers, but none achieves that level of cinematic intensity. Yes, Chazelle’s fifth and final act — the second “winter” — features a colorfully thrilling “stage sequence” production number that rivals Gene Kelly’s “Gotta Dance” montage, in Singing in the Rain ... but even it can’t match the opening scene.

By then, as well, Chazelle’s overall pacing has flagged, “Summer” and “Autumn” having nowhere near the ecstatic shimmer of the first “Winter” and “Spring.”

More critically, Gosling can’t sing. And his dancing also leaves something to be desired.

His dramatic moments are note-perfect, his depiction of Sebastian’s artistic angst never short of tragic. Nothing is more painful than seeing this dynamic jazz keyboardist reduced to playing electronic chords behind an upscale garage band, just to pay the rent; Gosling’s expressions of silent misery are heartbreaking.

Stone can sing, after a fashion; her dancing also looks and feels reasonably sure-footed. But Gosling’s limitations in those areas — rather key, in such a project — are distracting. He never achieves the joyously vibrant vocal intensity that made Ewan McGregor such an engaging protagonist, in Moulin Rouge! Gosling too frequently looks and sounds uncomfortable — and not for reasons relating to character — and this stiff contrast, against Stone’s relaxed grace, is quite noticeable.

The underdeveloped character roster doesn’t help. Mia and Sebastian dominate the entire film, interacting with almost nobody else. Mia’s roommates vanish after their one production number, never to be seen again. Sebastian has a sister, Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt), who gets one scene with him — giving voice to the futility of his refusal to compromise artistically — and then similarly vanishes.

J.K. Simmons, who earned an Academy Award for his galvanic role in Whiplash, pops up as the manager of an upscale restaurant, who fires Sebastian when the latter refuses to stick to the bland playlist. But Simmons, too, never is seen again after this one encounter.

Celebrated singer/songwriter John Legend fares better as Keith, a successful musician who persuades Sebastian to play keyboards in his rapidly rising band, The Messengers. Legend radiates  plenty of “cool” on camera, and he deftly handles the complexities of Keith’s prickly relationship with Sebastian, while arguing that there’s no point in inflexible artistic purity, if nobody is listening.

Here again, Gosling’s reaction — during Sebastian’s first rehearsal with Keith’s band — is priceless: a precisely timed, raised-eyebrow double-take, as the full impact of The Messengers’ “sound” sinks in.

There’s so much to love about La La Land — so much to be dazzled by — that it seems churlish to grumble about its shortcomings. At the same time, I can’t help being frustrated by a film that fails to live up to its electrifying first act. That’s rather ironic, since Chazelle also successfully imitates one of the failings of classic musicals, many of which suffer from a similar second-half slump.

So close, Damien. So close.

Next time, let a better writer polish the script.

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