If Gene Kelly, Woody Allen and Steve Martin had a chance to collaborate, the result might be very much like La La Land, the remarkable new movie (and this season’s big Oscar contender) by precocious young writer/director Damien Chazelle. But even in the hands of those masters, it’s hard to imagine that the end product would be any more delightful. La La Land is truly a breath of fresh air. And whether you’re suffering from winter doldrums or post-election PTSD, get thee to your nearest cineplex for two hours of good, old-fashioned escape.
Chazelle (who is just shy of 32) gained the industry’s attention when his second feature film Whiplash turned out to be the dark horse of the 2015 Academy Awards. It was nominated for Best Picture (against heavy-hitters Boyhood, Birdman, Selma, and others), and won three Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for screen veteran J. K. Simmons.
La La Land begins, as many films set in and about L.A. might, on the freeway, in a traffic jam. But, rather than succumb to road rage (à la Michael Douglas in 1993’s Falling Down), Chazelle’s Angelenos break into song and dance. The score for La La Land is by Justin Hurwitz (a Harvard classmate of Chazelle’s) and “Another Day of Sun” is just the first of fifteen songs that move the story forward and back, onto various dance floors, and in one utterly charming sequence up among the stars.
One driver who doesn’t have time to join the elaborate musical number is aspiring actress/actual barista Mia (Emma Stone). She’s too busy practicing her rather inane lines for an audition. So busy, in fact, that she fails to notice when the traffic begins moving again. The frustrated man behind her, jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), cuts in front of her earning a rather colorful gesture from her for his efforts.
Suffice it to say, musical or not, their story is hardly love at first sight.
The next time the two see each other, Mia is walking home from a party and wanders into a club where Sebastian is playing. That meeting doesn’t go well either (Sebastian’s just been fired for improvising jazz instead of sticking to a sanctioned list of Christmas carols). Finally, Mia goes to a pool party where the 80’s cover band includes a thoroughly mortified jazz pianist on keyboards. The two leave together, although they agree that such “A Lovely Night” is wasted on the two of them, since they’re clearly not meant for each other.
Of course, we know better.