If “Whiplash” was Damien Chazelle’s bullet train through dark regions of the New York jazz world, “La La Land” is his leisurely bus tour through sunlit fantasies of life in Los Angeles.
Stripped of its soundtrack and choreography, it offers a wafer-thin plot, almost no supporting characters and an ultra-traditional story. But with music and dance mixed in – though more sparingly than in a full-blown musical – it becomes a soufflé of comedy, drama and romance cooked almost to perfection.
The key to understanding it is a dead French director whose career peaked 50 years ago.
Writer-director Chazelle has long been a fan of Jacques Demy, especially his “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “Young Girls of Rochefort.” Chazelle even borrowed the names of the lovers in “Cherbourg” for the title of his first feature, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.”
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In “La La Land,” he worships his Demygod. The exuberant opening scene, where motorists emerge from cars on a clogged freeway for a big dance number, comes from “Rochefort.” The idea of having non-musical actors move gently into songs as if that were natural behavior comes from “Cherbourg,” where characters sing all the way through. (Look for the “Parapluies” window sign in “La La Land,” a tribute to the French title “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.”)
And like Demy, Chazelle creates a realm that suspends disbelief, forestalls cynicism and lets us open our hearts to emotion that’s as real in this setting as in any naturalistic drama.
The two protagonists, aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), inhabit a world almost literally their own. Supporting characters scarcely exist, though John Legend has a brief appearance and a satisfying musical number as a band leader.
Nor do we get or need much back story. The leads have a meet-cute, or rather a meet-angry. Then another. Then another. Eventually, they sense Fate may be driving them together as partners, at the same time as their artistic dreams may inevitably drive them apart.
Gosling plays the character he does so well and perhaps too frequently: A cool hipster seething with energy, a blunt or even sarcastic guy whose bravado conceals a sensitive soul. Stone tops her expressive work in “Birdman,” playing with even more vulnerability and warmth. In one superb scene, Mia auditions for a director, going from joy to confusion to emotional collapse in one phone call. (The director doesn’t hire her – hardly credible, but necessary to the plot.)
The production team supports these two elegantly, from Linus Sandgren’s subtly flattering cinematography to Mary Zophres’ alluring costumes. Composer Justin Hurwitz set lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul to tunes Gosling and Stone can sing attractively in their comfort zones, his more limited than hers.
The music and choreography let them seem to float effortlessly through the story in a joint soap bubble, shiny and colorful yet always in danger of bursting. Jacques Demy would have understood.
P.S. Mocking references to Hollywood usually call it “La-La Land.” Maybe Chazelle removed the hyphen because “la” is a note on the musical scale. In his world, everything is about music.
“La La Land”
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend.
Writer-director: Damien Chazelle.
Length: 128 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (some language).