Seven years after his debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), and only two after the international success of Whiplash (2014), Chazelle writes and directs yet another story where film and music are indissolubly tied together, and sets it in a colourful Los Angeles, the city of stars filled with people who dream of becoming someone they are not.
Sebastian (Gosling) is a thirty-something-year-old piano bar player obsessed with jazz, but forced to play the same repetitive tunes before crowds of vaguely interested customers. Mia (Stone) a girl about the same age who works as a waitress but dreams of becoming an actress. We meet both in a scene that mimics the beginning of Fellini’s 8 and ½. It’s Los Angeles, it’s rush hour, and cars are stuck in traffic. The only way people can escape the jam is dreaming, and dream they do: a jammed bridge turns into a carnival where drivers leave their seats, jump, dance and play around their vehicles. It’s a brilliant choreography, and a faithful summary of what the rest of the movie will be: explosive, vibrant and delightful. The camera follows the drivers-turned-dancers and the whole take feels like a wave of energy and colours that lingers long after the dream ends and people return to their seats.
Stuck amongst them are Sebastian and Amy. They meet when she fails to start her car, they honk and insult each other, then they meet again, they flirt, begin to go out, fall in love. It’s a standard love story, and yet it isn’t: Chazelle divides it into four seasons, and the love unfolds like the weather: it sprouts, blossoms, grows old, fades away. But the director seems to fall in love with them as much as they do with each other, and this is what gives to La La Land the sense of delicacy and empathy which makes it stand out as a love story that not only works – it sticks with you.
Amy and Sebastian’s romance is scattered with moments of sadness, joy, explosive choreographies and tip-tap moves. They are both romantic, and try to find their place in worlds where being so is almost looked down upon. We see Amy coming in and out of auditions where she gets repeatedly humiliated, and there is a scene where Sebastian is told jazz is dying because of nostalgic people like him are killing it.
Chazelle is, implicitly, just as romantic as the two of them. He chose to direct a movie that speaks of an art form which its own performers claim to be decaying, jazz, and did it through a medium which hardly many people would have used, a musical. Yet the experiment works. La La Land is as a film that is danced just as much as it is sung, and the choreographies, as well as the duo’s contagious energy and chemistry, add rhythm to the film as if crescendos in a musical piece.
In a sea where everyone plays the same thing, Chazelle has managed to sing his own melody, the same way Sebastian and Amy tried to create their own. The warm applause La La Land received at the end of his premiere at Venice’s 73rd Film Festival is a deserved prelude to the awards the film will hopefully receive in the days and months to come.