By Jeff Boudreaux
Writer-Director Damien Chazelle’s second jazz-themed foray into “Best Picture” Oscar consideration in as many years (i.e. “Whiplash”), just may be this talented auteur’s lucky charm as “La La Land” is a magical, yet modernized return to the musicals that dominated Hollywood in the 1950’s. From the opening number, which delectably involved a slew of motorists on the Los Angeles freeway unceremoniously breaking into song and dance, one realizes just how serious Chazelle was in capturing the heart and soul of the American musical. Ironically, this instantly brought to mind that glorious “street scene” from Alan Parker’s iconic teen opus “Fame,” which turned out to be genre stalwarts M-G-M’s curtain call out of that celebrated field in 1980. Truth be told, the terpsichorean talents of stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone probably won’t be confused with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers anytime soon. However, we have their superb (and rightfully nominated) acting performances to make up for any shortfalls that may be found in their footwork. After all, they were asked to resurrect a mostly forgotten art form, albeit one that will undoubtedly be celebrated in all of its glory on the night of February 28, when this film will take home the big one at the 89th annual Academy Awards.
Sebastian (Best Actor Oscar nominee Gosling) has dreams of opening up his own jazz club in Los Angeles, where he can demonstrate that he’s the second coming of Thelonious Monk, but for now he’s forced to play unadulterated renditions of “Jingle Bells” at one of the various local nightclubs. Seriously, why would this establishment even have a grand piano when the proprietor (Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons in nothing more than a glorified cameo) would’ve obviously been satisfied with a Muzak cd!? As a result, Sebastian finds himself taking whatever meager job is available (involving a keyboard, of course). Mia (Best Actress Oscar nominee Emma Stone), by the same token, is a barista who happens to be an aspiring actress who cannot get past a half-dozen words before being bid good evening by her auditioners. Yes, two sad souls in the land of dreams…until their lives intersect. Well, technically until their third meeting, but I’ll just say that three times is definitely their charm.
They fall in love, sing and dance, and genuinely uplift one another. As expected, opportunities arise when Sebastian is approached by Keith (John Legend), an old friend who is forming a nu-jazz outfit. It’s not exactly what a west-coast traditionalist like Sebastian had in mind, but it does pay the bills. As for Mia, fed up with her phone never ringing (except Sebastian of course!), she decides to write and perform a one-woman show. Can their relationship survive Sebastian performing in a different city each night or Mia finally getting callbacks? Or will their bond draw them back to each other’s arms for a reuniting serenade?
The two leads couldn’t have been more perfectly cast. Emma Stone earns her second Oscar nomination (her first for Best Actress) as Mia, another smart, funny and loveable extension of the persona that has consistently exuded from this gifted actress ever since 2010’s “Easy A.” Her chemistry with frequent co-star Gosling can’t be denied. This is their third time at the dance, no pun intended, appearing opposite each other in 2011’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and two years later in “Gangster Squad.” This will be the pairing that will go down in the history books, however, as I wouldn’t be surprised if this film snags half of its record-tying 14 Oscar nominations. While I don’t expect Gosling to win in his category (Denzel Washington will win his second Oscar for “Fences”), Emma Stone could pull off a dark horse win, judging from her victory at this week’s SAG awards. Besides, could any wins really be considered an upset for a film that is now tied with “All About Eve” and “Titanic” for total nominations? I have to admit that I will be totally shocked if, along with its all but certain Best Picture win, Damien Chazelle doesn’t take home the award for Best Director, as well.
As a jazz lover myself, I really appreciate the spotlight that Chazelle dedicates to the genre (American music at its purest form) in every one of his films, dating back to his 2009 debut, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.” While that film focused on a Boston trumpeter (Jason Palmer) and his relationships, “Whiplash” was the story of a drummer (Miles Teller) in New York, locked in an abusive relationship with his instructor, his art, and most importantly himself. Yet, in “La La Land,” we have the pleasure of witnessing L.A. native Sebastian tread a fine line between his love for Mia and that of his music. Let’s see: trumpet, drums, piano…I’m guessing that Chazelle’s next film will just have to focus on the proclivities of the baddest bass player to ever come out of New Orleans – the undisputed birthplace of jazz. While I could be (and probably am) very much dreaming, at the very least it would make for one hell of a quartet, don’t you think?
It shouldn’t come to any surprise that an artist such as Chazelle would pay tribute to classic film here as well. For Mia and Sebastian’s first date, they attend a screening of Nicholas Ray’s 1955 masterpiece “Rebel Without a Cause.” But they don’t just stop there, Chazelle has our lovebirds traipsing the holy grounds of L.A.’s Griffith Observatory, a landmark where much of that film’s dynamic action took place. “I got the bullets,” quips Sebastian as classic motion picture aficionados and James Dean fans alike share a chill up their collective spine. Our film even opens with a throwback Cinemascope logo, a photographic process that has largely been dormant since 1966. Because of these tributes to various iconic American art forms, someone may superficially surmise that this film doesn’t speak for today’s audiences. At least that’s what I’m guessing those two youngsters thought who withdrew themselves from my screening 15 minutes in. Had they stuck with it, they surely would have realized that regardless of references, music, singing or dancing, “La La Land” is a timeless tale that’s all about pursuing one’s dream. It’s as simple as that, but it’s also wrapped up in an elaborate rendering that you won’t soon forget.
***1/2 (three and a half stars out of four)