In 1977, director Martin Scorsese followed up the critical and (unexpected) commercial success of Taxi Driver with an even riskier and more ambitious picture. His idea – the kind of thing that could only get a greenlight in that particular moment, in the last thralls of the movement when they’d let a respected director try any old nutty thing – was to fuse the forceful domestic dramas of hero John Cassavetes with the backlot musicals of MGM’s Arthur Freed unit, to come up with a movie that sung, and danced, and scorched your soul. The result was New York, New York, and it was a giant flop.
I’m by no means implying that Damien Chazelle is a better filmmaker than Martin Scorsese (and I don’t think he would either), but this much must be said: at 31 years old, the writer/director has done something that Mr. Scorsese, at 35, could not, and that’s make that mixture work. His new film La La Land is an absolutely joyful, delightfully old-fashioned romantic musical comedy, lush and luminous, filled with full-blooded production numbers and theatrical lighting effects and lovingly old-fashioned montages. (Applicable dialogue exchange, sans context: “It feels really nostalgic to me.” “That’s the point!”) But it also navigates a delicate line between all of that stylization and an honest-to-God relationship drama, with scenes of conflict and disappointment that are raw and exposed.
Two scenes in particular bear closer examination. One comes early, as the boy, a piano player/songwriter named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) walks the girl, a writer/actress named Mia (Emma Stone) to her car after a party high in the Hollywood hills. As they observe the view, they begin to sing a little song – one of those jazzy numbers about how much they dislike each other, when it’s abundantly clear the opposite is true. They sit on their bench as they sing, and she changes out of her heels into two-tone shoes that look an awful lot like his. And then up goes the tempo; the band hits, just a beat before those shoes hit the floor in perfect synchronicity, and they begin to dance. At risk of putting too fine a point on it, that moment is what movies are for. (Chazelle shoots that number, and many others, without cutting – as if the camera is too intoxicated by what’s happening to glance away at anything else.)
The other scene comes much later, after they’ve fallen in love and moved in and their careers are starting to take off, and they finally have time for a dinner together, and it should be lovely. But they start talking about their lives and their plans and their relationship, and they both end up bristling. It’s a scene written and performed with an ear perfectly attuned to the way couples stick in the tiniest jabs, the way resentments bubble up in subtext, how you’ll circle each other and stop yourselves from saying things, and then say them anyway. The scene is so delicate that the tiniest miscalculation in how far to push or how serious to play could wreck the whole thing. They don’t wreck it.
To that point, La La Land has given us one of the movies’ longest-standing and simplest pleasures: watching two beautiful people fall in love. And it does not fall short there – the way Stone and Gosling look at each other could end wars, and at risk of sounding comically prudish, there’s something kind of wonderful about the electricity allowed of the moment when they first hold hands, which is as intimate as any sex scene. Their affection is so infectious that you’ll pretty much fall for one or the other (or, more likely, both); Chazelle captures the charge of those moments, the way seeing someone or even thinking about them can light your whole world up. Their first real date finds them literally dancing on air; you can spend the rest of your lives together chasing that feeling.
That letdowns, arguments, and breakups eventually follow is not surprising; the surprise is that they carry such emotional resonance. Much of that comes in the writing and directing, but Gosling and Stone’s easy chemistry (this is their third film together) and all-in performances bring it home. She’s never been better in a movie, which is saying something; there’s a moment where she says three simple words (“Are you kidding?”) and it’s one of the most heartbreaking things you’ve ever seen. There, and throughout the picture, she holds you in her grasp, conveying endless vulnerability and strength, all at once, and it’s awe-inspiring. His role isn’t as showy, so it looks easier, and maybe it is. But doing what he’s doing – that unflappable, sturdy center, movie star thing – and doing it this effortlessly is hard work.
Late in the movie, Stone sings a song at an audition about taking a leap – chasing a dream, going for something big, even when you know it’s impossible. It’s absolutely about the character, but it’s also something of a manifesto for the movie she’s in. A film like this is a real risk. That it works at all is remarkable. That it works this well is a fucking miracle.
La La Land is out Friday in limited release.