'La La Land'

La La Land is a musical about jazz as much as it is a musical with a lot of jazz. Director Damien Chazelle's follow-up to the Oscar-nominated Whiplash is ripe for interpretation and analysis, and since I'm wagering right here and right now that it's going to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards in a few months' time, we'll have plenty of time to run through them all.

But more than anything, it's about jazz music - about its timeless pleasure, its physicality, its continued rebirth each time someone new plays something old. Heck, Ryan Gosling, one of the film's stars, comes right out and says it as he's explaining his character's love of the artform to co-star Emma Stone.

"It's different every time," he says, delivering his explanation with an obsessive, infectious zeal.

Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz pianist who has just lost his stake in a club and who reveres the masters - his apartment is littered with vinyl recordings of the likes of Charlie Parker and his most prized possession is a stool on which Hoagy Carmichael supposedly sat. He wrestles throughout the movie with the notion of artistic purity in a manner that is reminiscent of Chazelle's last male protagonist - Miles Teller's Andrew - and, more oddly, of Oscar Isaac's Llewyn Davis.

It's such a tug of war that in the film's first chapter he's fired from a steady gig because he just can't stick to the script of playing Christmas carols meant to be mostly ignored by restaurant patrons, and by its third chapter he's tickling the keys of a synthesizer in a modern-sounding jazz fusion band helmed by an old college classmate (John Legend), mostly because the pay is good.

Sebastian's internal strife is mirrored by his love interest, Mia (Stone), a struggling actress, who, at the start of the film is aimlessly attending audition after audition without ever getting close to a part, and, by its end, has written, produced and starred in a one-woman play at the encouragement of her beau.

Sure, there's a broader interpretation about art to be had. After all, Mia's arc might be in direct contrast chronologically to Sebastian's, but Ingrid Bergman is plastered on the wall of her apartment and Casablanca and Rebel Without a Cause are name-checked as sources of inspiration for her work.

But the trappings of the film scream jazz first and art second - about the line between apprenticeship, mastering a craft as it has been done for many years, and authorship, feeling comfortable and confident and even cocky enough to reinterpret it altogether. 

La La Land is filled with set pieces and musical numbers that evoke the classic Hollywood made most famous in Singin' in the Rain. (Ironically, Singin' in the Rain also looks backward to the silent movie era.) And yet they are all decidedly of this era too, whether that's setting a song-and-dance sequence atop and around cars on a crowded freeway ramp or punctuating a pregnant silence with a ringing mobile phone or having your two protagonists sing about how a romantic moment is being wasted on two people who will surely never fall in love.

There is an undeniable physicality to the film, but this is achieved more through camerawork - through tight, lingering closeups and steady, almost constant strafing or whirling of the lens - than it is through the technical gifts of Gosling and Stone (Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, they ain't).

Chazelle, with a background in jazz drumming and perhaps feeling more confident than ever after the validation of Whiplash, seems to be doing his own riff on the Hollywood masters.

So is it any good?



It's kind of uncomfortable, truthfully, to watch a film that so explicitly seems to be wrestling with its very existence. At least it is for awhile.

And Chazelle's riff is an awkward one at first, mostly because musicals like this, with a heavy dose of performance and a comparatively mild dose of vocal melodrama, simply don't get made anymore. It feels like Singin' in the Rain has been shot from a cannon, 1952 to the present, necessitating an adjustment period as a viewer. But once you settle in - once you let the charm of Stone and Gosling wash over and you start humming the theme, "City of Stars" - it's hard not to get taken in. 

You might spend half the film gobsmacked by what you're seeing. You might be thrown for a loop by the bittersweet, fantastical end. You'll almost certainly walk out of the theater ready to see La La Land again.