Fantastically Stylized 'La La Land' Is A Musical Tour-De-Force

Dec 9, 2016
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "La La Land" is the third film by the director Damien Chazelle, best known for his drama "Whiplash," which won an Academy Award for J.K. Simmons as a sadistic music teacher. The protagonist of "La La Land," played by Ryan Gosling, is also a jazz musician, but the film is a full-scale musical that also stars Emma Stone. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Damien Chazelle's romantic musical "La La Land" revolves around a jazz keyboardist played by Ryan Gosling and an aspiring actress played by Emma Stone, who fall lyrically in love but threaten to come uncoupled when the music stops. The movie is fantastically stylized. But for all its iridescent colors, the relationship at the center is subject to a big dose of reality. Let's talk about that stylization first. One measure of style is you don't see the effort. And Chazelle makes "La La Land" look easy.

There's a spectacular opening, but the rest of the numbers aren't blowouts. Justin Hurwitz's songs are intimate, like humming or whistling taken to the next level. You'd have to go back to Jacques Demy's 1964 "The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg" to find a musical so unified. Everything - the gliding camera, the glow of the sets and costumes, the rhythms of the actors - comes together.

Stone and Gosling are paired for the third time, and their chemistry is thrilling. As Sebastian, Gosling is tall, aloof, smugly self-involved. But Stone's Mia is so present that she pulls him out of his sleepy tempos. They meet-cute in a traffic jam when he makes a rude gesture at her for sitting at a light. But their first real chord's get struck later when she's passing a restaurant and drawn in by the sound of his playing. She sees him. The diners fade away and then it's just a boy and girl in twin spotlights.

That sounds campy, but Chazelle doesn't wink at the audience and the attraction isn't cemented until later. Sebastian and Mia gaze down from The Hills onto LA, and against the twinkling lights and violet sky, they're so superhumanly gorgeous they just have to sing and dance. Gosling's voice is thin but pleasing while Stone's is breathy but full and sweet.

They're not Astaire and Rogers. Their dance steps are rather simple, but the elements gel and the number is magic. A few days later, Mia can't wait to tell Sebastian some good career news.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA LA LAND")

EMMA STONE: (As Mia) I got a callback.

RYAN GOSLING: (As Sebastian) What? Come on, for what?

STONE: (As Mia) For a TV show, the one I was telling you about earlier.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) The "Dangerous Minds" meets "The O.C.?"

STONE: (As Mia) Yeah.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) Congratulations, that's incredible.

STONE: (As Mia) It's really exciting. I feel like I said negative stuff about it before.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) What?

STONE: (As Mia) It's like a "Rebel Without A Cause," sort of.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) I got the bullets.

STONE: (As Mia) Yes.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) You've never seen it.

STONE: (As Mia) I've never seen it.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) Oh, my. You know it's playing at the Rialto?

STONE: (As Mia) Really?

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) Yes, you should go - I mean, I can take you...

STONE: (As Mia) OK.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) ...You know, for research.

STONE: (As Mia) For research?

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) Yeah.

STONE: (As Mia) Yeah.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) OK. Monday night, 10 o'clock.

STONE: (As Mia) Yeah, great.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) OK.

STONE: (As Mia) For research.

EDELSTEIN: Mia's small hesitations are because she has a boyfriend, and she's supposed to meet him on the night she said she'll see "Rebel Without A Cause" - decisions, decisions. Emma Stone's coloring, red hair, blue eyes, pale skin, just pops. And the greens and yellows and blues in which he's dressed make her more vivid yet.

The clothes and the production design are in perfect harmony. Apartment walls and murals along the avenues feature illustrations of Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields and other Hollywood icons to remind you constantly you're in, well, la la land. But Damien Chazelle isn't a sentimentalist. His last film was "Whiplash." He knows that pursuing one's art can mean leaving other people behind.

Sebastian wants to make money to open a jazz club and goes on tour with a high-tech jazz rock outfit. Mia wants to be a star, and she'll go wherever she needs to. Sometimes the timing works, sometimes it's just off. But Chazelle finds the melodic thread again in a final fantasia that's like nothing I've ever seen, a musical tour de force.

I know people who have a hard time accepting that a movie as stylish as "La La Land" isn't just fluff. I've even heard the word pastiche, suggesting it's no more than a lively imitation. Bunk. Consider the scene in which Sebastian listens to a jazz record and tries to reproduce the pianist's sound. It's not imitation for imitation's sake. He's trying to get inside the head of an artist he loves. That's what Chazelle has done with musicals like "The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg" and "A Star Is Born." He's learned their language from the inside and made the form triumphantly his own.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BILLY ON THE STREET")

BILLY EICHNER: Miss, miss, please turn around. Reese Witherspoon celebrated her 40th birthday in style. She had a - she had a great time.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nothing to do with me.

EICHNER: I understand, but...

BIANCULLI: Billy Eichner talks about "Billy On The Street," his TV game show where he quizzes people on the street about pop culture. Eichner also stars in "Difficult People" and had a recurring role on "Parks And Recreation." Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman (ph) and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LOVELY NIGHT")

GOSLING: (As Sebastian, singing) Some other girl and guy would love the swirl in the sky. But there's only you and I, and we've got no shot. This could never be. You're not the type for me.

STONE: (As Mia) Really?

GOSLING: (As Sebastian, singing) And there's not a spark in sight. What a waste of a lovely night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.