The opening moments where we are smack dab in the thick of a test flight thrusting Neil Armstong above the earth’s atmosphere are among the most thrilling I’ve felt since Dunkirk, all sound and fury and rattling nuts and bolts and creaking ship hulls. But when not relishing in the “in the moment” nitty-gritty details of how we got to the moon, the filmmakers take a huge gamble by positing (with some poetic license) that the primary motive behind Neil Armstrong’s push to the be the first man on the moon was perhaps grief – namely finding a way to process the death of his two-year old daughter, but also the grief over the astronauts who lost their lives in earlier failed missions. It worked for this viewer (and new dad) but it makes for a surprisingly somber tale colored with a psychological complexity I was not expecting.
“Betty, I’ve got a part…you will kill,” casting director Linney James (Rita Taggart) tells naive ingenue Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) in David Lynch’s self-described “love story in the city of dreams”, the seminal classic, Mulholland Drive.
Fifteen years later, Damien Chazelle has delivered the greatest “love story in the city of dreams” since Mulholland Drive with his swooning, joyous and melancholy musical La La Land…and he’s left the greatest part for us. In his story, we get to play the audience. And, boy, in this year of pop cultural celebrity deaths that has 1980’s children in nostalgia tinted tears and a political wasteland that hath wroth His Orange Emperor, man…we are so PERFECT for this part! We are gonna kill it! And we are going to love La La Land with its toe-tapping musical themes and heart-ringing ballads forever echoing in our collective unconscious to be passed down from generation to generation like our communal love for flickering wonders in the dark and dreams writ large on a silver screen. It’s possibly the defining fluff piece of our times, and it is beautiful.
Like Mulholland Drive, La La Land weaves an archetypal tapestry of dreamers falling in love and getting swept up in the pulse and vibrations of Los Angeles. Here we have struggling actress Mia (almond-eyed, red-haired, fair-skinned, cute-as-a-button and sassy as all get-out Emma Stone in the type of role you wonder if a young actress could ever out-shine) and struggling jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling at the top of his Gos Game) breaking out into song (hell, and why shouldn’t they?) and literally dancing on air (a feeling anybody who has fallen in love can relate to). Like Lynch’s film, there are moments where you will drift away into the most rapturous of reveries (the opening “drivers-stuck-on-the-LA-freeway-breaking-out-into-song” bit perfectly disembodied, transportive and tone-setting), fall in love, laugh, perhaps cry, and wonder along with our big-eyed dreamers.
Where Chazelle takes the film from beautiful fluff to art is his insistence on not resting on the musical norms while at the same time exploiting them for all their worth. Each wondrously choreographed dance number is breathtakingly dreamlike, both eschewing what we expect (and I normally loathe) in musicals while adhering to the genre’s most universal and transportive tropes. Chazelle employes lyricists who tell the story through the songs, not just put on a show…while the set designers, costumers and choreographers put on one hell of a show. Continue reading