The Novelty and Nostalgia of La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s magnificent musical pays homage to Old Hollywood while fully embracing its present.

Lionsgate / Summit Entertainment

“That’s the window,” struggling actress Mia delightedly tells struggling jazz pianist Sebastian in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, “that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman looked out in Casablanca.” The two are on the Warner Brothers lot, where Mia works as a barista in the studio coffee shop. And the window in question is, in reality, the one featured in Casabalanca. Writer-director Chazelle discovered it after choosing the Warner lot for his shoot and he wrote the corresponding line into his screenplay.

It’s one of many joyous nods to movie history tossed off by La La Land, Chazelle’s lush and giddily musical love letter to Hollywood. But tucked within this overt reference is another, both more subtle and more apt. Look carefully, and you’ll notice that beneath the window is a shop door, and on it is stenciled a single word: “Parapluies.”

Of the many inspirations for La La Land—Chazelle clearly knows his An American in Paris and his Annie Hall, too—none echo so loudly as Jacques Demy’s 1964 masterpiece, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), as well as its lesser sibling, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. Demy memorably described Umbrellas as “a film in color and song,” and one would be hard pressed to find a phrase better suited to La La Land.

Song and color are evident from the very first scene, which opens with a traffic jam on the L.A. freeway. Cars are crammed motionless, bumper to bumper, with each occupant listening to his or her own music. Intentionally or not, it’s a perfect dramatization of the much-derided opening line of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero: “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.”

Yet merge they do, thanks to Chazelle’s cinematic magic. A woman in a battered Chevy begins singing to herself and steps out of her vehicle. She is followed by another driver, and another. The musical number continues expanding until dozens of commuters are on the roofs and hoods of their cars, singing, dancing, performing flips and skateboard tricks, and celebrating, en masse, “Another Day of Sun.”

And then it’s over, as quickly as it began. The music stops, the spontaneous revelers return to their cars, and traffic begins to move. Or at least most of it does. A distracted Mia (Emma Stone) is still stopped in her Prius, practicing lines for an audition. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), stuck behind her in his Buick convertible—this being Los Angeles, cars define character—honks angrily. As he pulls around her, she gives him the finger. Ah, love.

Nor is this the last time the duo will meet-uncute. Following a soulless party in “one of those big glass houses” in the hills (though one enlivened by another spontaneous musical number), Mia stumbles upon Sebastian playing piano in a restaurant and is entranced. But Sebastian—who has just been fired for straying from the approved holiday song list—brusquely shoulders past her on his way out the door.

It’s not until their third chance encounter that affection begins to bloom. And even this meeting is bookended by Mia making fun of Sebastian’s participation in an ’80s cover band—moral: never ask a self-described “serious musician” to play A Flock of Seagulls—and by the two soft-shoeing their way through a song expressing their mutual lack of romantic interest: We’ve stumbled on a view that’s tailor-made for two. What a shame the two are you and me. (With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella—Mia even takes off her party shoes—the song is titled “A Lovely Night.”)

But the seeds have been sown. Soon Mia is showing Sebastian the Casablanca window and he is taking her to Rebel Without a Cause at the Rialto—and, afterward, to the Griffith Observatory itself, where the two will literally dance their way up into the stars. Los Angeles is rarely portrayed as a prime venue for romance. But in Chazelle’s hands it quickly earns its standing as the subject of another Mia-Sebastian duet, “City of Stars.”

The two lovers will, of course, face compromise and conflict: between love and their respective showbiz dreams, and even over the precise nature of those dreams. Sebastian, especially, grapples with questions of commercial success versus remaining true to the classic jazz of which he is an ardent apostle. Happy endings can be hard to achieve, even in the movies.

La La Land is Chazelle’s third film, following Whiplash and his little-seen musical debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench—the latter’s protagonists named after two characters in Umbrellas of Cherbourg—and to describe it as a breath of fresh air is both accurate and insufficient. Just 31 years old, Chazelle has reinvigorated the big-screen musical by embracing the present while paying tribute to the past, by balancing irony and innocence, novelty and nostalgia. At one point in the film, Sebastian is asked, “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” La La Land itself provides an answer.

There are knowing winks scattered throughout the film: the clone-like actresses who show up for every audition; the studio gasbag envisioning a franchise based on Goldilocks (“There’s a lot we don’t know. There could have been a fourth bear”); the out-of-towner explaining the superiority of his state-of-the-art home cinema setup (“You know theaters these days. They’re so dirty…. And there are always people talking”). But such gentle tweaks aside, La La Land is suffused with a love of moviemaking so profound it tingles.

This is the third time Stone and Gosling have appeared onscreen as lovers, following Crazy, Stupid, Love and the best-forgotten Gangster Squad, and their chemistry has never been more palpable. Stone, in particular, with her huge eyes and expressive mouth, finds moments of intimate connection with the camera amid the otherwise delirious hubbub.

Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren shot the film in extra-wide CinemaScope, allowing the camera to pan and twirl as if perpetually curious to discover what delights might lurk just outside the frame. The songs and score, by customary Chazelle collaborator Justin Hurwitz, are not quite indelible but they are nonetheless lovely. And while neither Stone nor Gosling is a professional-level singer or dancer, Chazelle does not pretend that they are. Their voices are unmodified and their dance sequences—like all the musical numbers—are shot in long takes rather than chopped and edited into fine shards of perfection. It’s an unusual choice but one that pays dividends, adding a layer of reality to the cinematic fantasy.

Indeed, it’s a strange thing to say about a movie that opens with a massive dance number on the L.A. freeway, but at its best, La La Land sneaks up on you: the moment, after a party, when Sebastian surreptitiously turns back to get his car after walking Mia to hers; a sunset stroll on a pier jutting into the Pacific; that immeasurably important moment when two people hold hands in a movie theater for the first time. “It’s love,” Mia sings in “City of Stars,” “yes, all we’re looking for is love from someone else.” Indeed it is. La La Land is a reminder of why they make movies. And why, despite dirty theaters and people always talking, we go to see them.