“La La Land” is so good it’s almost enough to make you want to spend time in Los Angeles. The rightly-lauded opening sequence of the film depicts a typical LA traffic jam except that the cars aren’t filled with poorly-dressed people only able to express themselves via Facebook posts about reality television but instead bon vivants who pop their doors open to reveal their corresponding primary-colored clothes and love for choreographed dance.
After that memorable ballad is belted to the sun, the camera swings to the Prius driven by Mia (Emma Stone), an underemployed actress who wants to write and star in her own plays, and the red-leather ’80s Buick of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an underemployed piano man who wants to open his own jazz club. She’s ready meet cute but he prefers to meet surly, ruining the reverie with his aggressive horn honking.
His surliness is sated only by retreat to jazz – Mia next sees Sebastian as he is being fired from a restaurant gig because he refuses to play the Christmas set list, making a skillful but unscheduled segue from “Deck the Halls” to his own tune, which becomes “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” after she walks through the door.
And suddenly they’re everywhere together, her in classic sundresses, he in a spectacular array of vintage ties. Their chemistry is excellent, thanks to bantering conviviality and exceptionally well-paired eyes – his are hangdog and squinting, hers glittering and enormous. If their dancing is not Astaire and Rogers, it is at least enough to remind you of Astaire and Rogers. And, though their singing works on charm more than ability, any karaoker worth her salt knows that a lack of talent can be overcome with enthusiasm.
Director Damien Chazelle enjoyably deploys composer Justin Hurwitz’s music along with a strong batch of complimentary songs, from that Flock of Seagulls gem “I Ran (So Far Away)” to Thelonious Monk’s “Japanese Folk Song.” He averages at least one reference a minute to another film musical – to pick two around just on the topic of precipitation, “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (the connection to the latter more poignant as the film evolves).
As Mia often has occasion to say about Sebastian’s preoccupations, “it feels nostalgic to me,” and their life together is a nostalgia exercise of the best kind. The film is shot on CinemaScope and takes as a touchstone the CinemaScope classic “Rebel Without a Cause” – the couple watches a print of the film until it disintegrates then heads up to Griffith Observatory to continue the magic. “La La Land” is also a defense of many other worthy things, like writing by hand, rewinding on tape decks, and coordinating your outfits with your friends before going out.
Much has been made of Sebastian’s unapologetic mansplaining to Mia about preserving “pure jazz,” but it’s notable that his sometime bandmate Keith (John Legend) is just as persuasive in his belief that the genre must push ahead and not fetishize the past.
In the end, it isn’t the jazz politics of “La La Land” that most alarm people, it is the utter earnestness of Chazelle and his swing for the fences style of filmmaking. Chazelle reminds viewers of their (potentially embarrassing and often suppressed) passions, which can be alarming.
“La La Land” is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated PG-13. Running time 2:08. Visit cinemawest.com.