Sometimes the hardest thing to handle about being a breakout director is making your next film that can negotiate the hype you suddenly find surrounding you. When Damien Chazelle lit Sundance on fire in 2014, he became the infamous "One to Watch" practically overnight with his second directorial effort, Whiplash, earning three Academy Awards for his efforts. Whiplash was a lean, mean, muscular film, as propulsive as the jazz that formed its soundtrack, stripped bare of everything save J.K. Simmons and his black turtleneck, Miles Teller and his drum set. It was impressively cinematic yet spare, with the immediacy of a chamber play, a psychodrama meted out between these two men with a hazy approximation of a world out of focus behind them. For Chazelle, it was a hell of a calling card, something altogether more impressive for his CV than "screenwriter of Grand Piano," announcing him as a force in the film world. His script work for 10 Cloverfield Lane, this past Spring's mystery box thriller from Bad Robot, continued his trend of taut thrillers where they might not initially be expected, but the real event would be his next feature. It's safe to say, though, as Simmons accepted his Academy Award in February 2015, that we didn't know just how much of an event it would be.
There's music in La La Land. There's jazz in La La Land. There's even J.K. Simmons in La La Land. But as the camera (deftly wielded by Linus Sandgren) swoops down over a traffic jam on a highway just outside of Los Angeles only to settle in on a stretch of cars whose drivers burst from their doors to perform a meticulously choreographed song and dance number about the beautiful sunny weather, things seem a little different in Chazelle's new world.
Truly, this is about as far away from Whiplash as you can get.
Two of the poor souls stuck in this impossibly cheery traffic jam are Mia (Emma Stone), a barista and failing actress from a small town in Nevada trying to make her way in the world, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz piano playing hipster who listens to cassette tapes in his retro convertible. They meet in a few abrupt and unfortunate circumstances, developing a quick and passionate dislike for each other. Clearly, they are destined to fall in love.
La La Land is a true blue Old Hollywood musical in every sense of the word, so naturally Seb and Mia fall for each other during a moonlit tap dance on a hill overlooking the LA skyline. And throughout, Chazelle wears his influences on his sleeve, providing a tour of the greats with stops from An American in Paris to West Side Story and seemingly everything in between. The classic Singin' in the Rain (the peak of the genre) seems the most obvious seed from which La La Land grows (the tap dance sequence -- itself a clear allusion to Gene Kelly -- features a conspicuous street lamp Gosling lazily swings around), both in its undeniable good cheer and its tendency to frame the conflict of the story in something at least resembling real world conflict. Gosling isn't the dancer Kelly is (and, honestly, who is?); his sequences play out at about one tenth the speed of Kelly's mesmerizing blur of feet and legs, but his irresistible shaggy dog charm is in full effect, as is his perfectly coiffed piano player hair, falling in strands over his face as he pounds the keys. He prods at the world to get off his lawn for turning a beloved historical jazz bar into a samba/tapas joint, but that frustration never metastasizes into cynicism even as he sells his soul to join a jazz-pop fusion combo fronted by an old frenemy (John Legend) because he thinks Mia wants him to have a steady income.
Stone is just as charming in her own way, with the chemistry of the two having built on multiple past romantic pairings on screen (Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad) continuing to generate fireworks on screen. She's a caricature of the standard Hollywood ingenue trope with a bit of Debbie Reynolds to taste, toiling away at her job at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot while being systematically ignored by casting agents all over town. Both characters really are caricatures, but movie musical have built their foundation on caricature and Chazelle is quite aware of this, opting to slyly poke at those conventions while fully embracing them. Indeed, Los Angeles itself is equally a cartoon version of itself, an idyllic alternate universe where the barista who can't even get a call back manages to self-fund a one woman show that happens to be attended by a talent agent who is enraptured by her performance and makes her a star. It truly is la la land. A land of dreamers. But dreams can't always come true the way we want them to, and Chazelle isn't content to just ride the good cheer through the end credits. The music recedes into memory as busy lives force them apart and their happy ending is jeopardized, the warm pastel colors of the first act morphing into lonely, icy blue tones. It's a challenge to pull off the subtle shift in tone, embracing a bit of melodrama and real world complications, but it works rather well in practice, especially in contrast to a bravura and bombastic piece of wish fulfillment dreaming that imagines what could have been, but what never could be.
Damien Chazelle easily could have rested on his laurels with the credibility and good will that came from Whiplash. I'm sure studios would have been thrilled with a similar follow-up effort that explores and expands on the same tonal lines. But faced with carte blanche, Chazelle clearly likes a challenge, and few films could be more challenging than a full blown old school movie musical (it even opens with an old school Cinemascope logo to bring the nostalgia from its first moment), a genre dead and dusted for decades. It is perhaps a tough ask for audiences to give themselves over to something like this, many of them so conditioned by impossibly gigantic franchises and spectacular blockbusters that have turned trips to the cinema into events rather than simple nights out. La La Land is certainly spectacular, and certainly an event, but it's spectacular in an entirely different way than we've seen on this scale in some time. Musicals these days seem to be the realm of animated children's movies, dour adaptations of Les Miserables and quirky indies like Hedwig and the Angry Inch or Repo! The Genetic Opera. But with La La Land, Chazelle has reminded us that movie musicals used to dominate Hollywood for good reason. Whiplash may be a superior film by slight margins, but the ambition of La La Land knows few bounds. With an irresistible soundtrack and enchanting performances from its two leads, La La Land is one to treasure. It's a love letter to movies and making movies, to music and making music, to art in all its forms.