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Damien Chazelle infuses the structure of a 50s MGM musical with a nervous energy that’s totally contemporary
LA LA LAND (Damien Chazelle). 128 minutes. Opens December 25. See listing. Rating: NNNNN
I knew La La Land would win TIFF’s People’s Choice Award the moment the credits rolled at my press screening. And I’m similarly certain that Damien Chazelle didn’t make his wildly ambitious musical to win prizes it’s just that audiences (and critics) are simply responding to it as ecstatically as they should.
La La Land pairs Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as Hollywood dreamers who’d be perfect for each other if it weren’t for their wildly divergent interests and career paths. It’s not a new story, of course, and that’s the point. Chazelle’s movie is a swooning, glorious tribute to the risky pursuits of fame, art and love, not necessarily in that order.
This isn’t Chazelle first stab at a musical his debut feature as a writer/director, 2009’s Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench, was similarly situated within the genre, though it owed as much to the French New Wave and John Cassavetes as it did to Jacques Demy. In La La Land, he doesn’t juggle his influences so much as pick one and bear down on it, borrowing the structure of a 50s MGM musical and infusing it with a nervous energy that’s utterly contemporary.
And his stars are goddamn perfection in roles that seem tailored to their specific personalities: Gosling gets to be charismatic and weird and graceful (and play the piano sarcastically), and Stone is sharp-edged and radiant and even more graceful. Their first tap-dance number is a sheer delight, establishing a playful sophistication that carries through the whole picture.
I didn’t buy into the overheated bollocks of Whiplash, but Chazelle finds a much more convincing frame for his art-is-all narrative this time: musicals are movies where people burst into song because their emotions can’t be expressed through speech. And La La Land gives its characters so many reasons to sing.
La La Land’s wholehearted embrace of the classic studio musical form means it can play to both older Oscar voters happy to see they do make ’em like they used to and younger Academy members open to hipster reinvention. Although Gosling was nominated for a Golden Globe in the comedy/musical category, he could get crowded out of Oscar’s actor race. But Stone has to be a lock for best actress. She’s fantastic in a way that catches you by surprise, and Oscar loves that.
The rolling acclaim that’s been building since TIFF means a best picture slot is inevitable, and that makes a raft of other nominations possible – like director, cinematography, art direction and costume design, and at least one best song nod, most likely for the recurring City Of Stars.