La La Land opened the Philadelphia Film Festival Thursday night, fresh off rapturous critical response in Vienna and Toronto, which led to its anointment as an early favorite for the Best Picture Oscar. The hype is warranted. La La Land is a wondrous, magical film that pays constant tribute to a century of musicals and Hollywood films about Hollywood, without ever succumbing to cliché.
The film is an earnest celebration of Hollywood, both the industry and the place. This film knows Hollywood myth is artifice, but embraces and celebrates it anyway, with no fear of embracing the corny.
No time like the present
Damien Chazelle (best known for 2014’s Whiplash), who wrote and directed, introduced La La Land at the Prince Theater. While it’s not nearly as hard-edged or cynical as the director’s previous film, it retains Whiplash’s knack for both memorable musical sequences and gorgeously shot rooms and landscapes.
While it borrows elements from old Hollywood musicals — clothes, color palette, and a general air of dreaminess — the film is set in the present, as demonstrated in an amazing opening number featuring struggling actors getting out of their cars and dancing in the middle of a freeway traffic jam.
None of these people have anything to do with the main story, which concerns a romance between a struggling actress (Emma Stone) and a struggling musician (Ryan Gosling.) The film charts their love, its ups and downs, as they float (sometimes literally) through souped-up, idealized versions of recognizable Los Angeles locations. The plot follows them for a year, plus an epilogue, as their careers progress and change, and the two must contend with questions of exactly how closely to follow their dreams. The ending, especially, is a heartbreaker.
Gosling and Stone are fantastic together. This is their third time as on-screen romantic partners. 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love may have been wildly contrived and uneven, but their scenes were probably its best element; the less said about that other team-up, 2013’s great cast, bad film oddity The Gangster Squad, the better. But here, they look great, they sing great, and their chemistry is off the charts.
J.K. Simmons, who won an Oscar in Chazelle’s last film, shows up briefly as a musical taskmaster (much like his Whiplash character), and John Legend goes up against his established image, playing a proudly kitschy pop star.
Another of the film’s great strengths is the musical numbers, with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and music by Justin Hurwitz. No, the compositions aren’t quite Sondheim-caliber in their sophistication, and the score gets somewhat repetitive. But they get the job done. It wouldn’t be shocking if a stage adaptation ends up on Broadway in a year or two.
No business like show business
But probably the best thing about La La Land is just how flat-out gorgeous it looks. Whether it’s the production design, costumes, cinematography, or staging, every frame looks absolutely stunning. It’s been a really great year for beautiful-looking Los Angeles movies, most of them with period settings (Hail, Caesar; Cafe Society; Warren Beatty’s upcoming Rules Don’t Apply), but what irony that the one set in the present most perfectly captures old-Hollywood glamour.
Is La La Land the best movie of the year? It’s probably neck-and-neck with Moonlight, a very different film coming to the festival later this week. But it’s the movie that will probably put smiles on the faces of the most people.