“It feels really nostalgic to me,” frets a self-conscious Mia (Emma Stone) in “La La Land,” after reading her one-woman play to her boyfriend, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). “Do you think people are going to like it?”
Writer-director Damien Chazelle must have harbored the same doubts as he began working on this romantic musical film about love, art and ambition. Despite its contemporary Los Angeles setting amid Priuses and cellphones, “La La Land” is deeply nostalgic, drawing inspiration from Hollywood’s Golden Age, from Thelonious Monk and other jazz greats, and from the ruminative lyricism of French filmmaker Jacques Demy and his 1960s works.
So when Sebastian answers Mia with a defiant “F--- ’em!” it feels like Chazelle’s manifesto, a cri de coeur that echoes through this astonishing, poignant and beautifully realized film. For there is nothing tentative about “La La Land,” especially concerning its exuberant dance numbers. Like the great musical maestros Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen, Chazelle put his faith in dancing as good storytelling. As a result, dance makes a triumphant return as an expressive cinematic language in “La La Land,” in ways big and small.
The dance numbers are so physically rapturous and vicariously thrilling, they almost lift your heart out of your chest. There’s the exhilarating opening sequence during a traffic jam on an L.A. freeway, where drivers spin and stomp on the roofs of their cars while a BMX biker and a freewheeling skateboarder surf the concrete barriers. A hallucinatory pool-party number includes nods to Jerome Robbins’s “West Side Story,” with pretty young partygoers snapping open fans and Stone grabbing her skirt in mambo moves from the Rita Moreno playbook.
It’s during a starlit tap dance in the Hollywood Hills that Sebastian, a jazz pianist, and Mia, an aspiring actress, try to ward off their feelings for each other and then succumb to them. The irresistible couple finally fall in love during a waltz reverie at a planetarium that sends them spinning, airborne, through the stars. Later, a stylized dream sequence recalls Gene Kelly’s pursuit of Leslie Caron in the ballet that closes “An American in Paris.”
These episodes, when naturalism falls away and the characters’ ineffable spiritual yearnings take over, are more than visually and dynamically exciting. Accompanied by Justin Hurwitz’s soaring music, they’re deftly crafted windows into an emotional state.
Chazelle spoke about his respect for the power of movie musicals at a screening of “La La Land” at the Middleburg Film Festival. “What makes musicals unique and beautiful,” he said, is that “your emotions can upend reality. If you feel enough, if you’re heartbroken enough, you will break into song and a 90-piece orchestra will materialize.”
Stone and Gosling embody Mandy Moore’s choreography with great charm and energy, and they make it part of their character development, adding subtle shadings to the way they dance that tell us about their inner experience. Stone looks different when she’s tap-dancing with Gosling on a hillside overlooking the city than when she’s dancing with him in the dream sequences or when she’s dancing alone. She’s a little stiffer, a little more withheld when she’s with Gosling in the “real” world, and it’s not because she is less of a dancer. In fact, she usually has the more complicated steps, the turns and quick footwork.
Her touch of reticence comes from her inside-out knowledge of Mia’s emotional state and her complicated relationship with her boyfriend. It’s part of her nervy intensity, acid sarcasm and hypersensitivity. She combines ambition and wariness, Katharine Hepburn-like.
Gosling’s Sebastian has a different sort of drive, a quiet confidence. It’s apparent whenever he dances, and especially in my favorite dance moment of the film, a little flash of joy that happens when Sebastian brings Mia to a jazz club. After Mia launches into an ecstatic, free-spirited solo on the dance floor, Sebastian joins her; he’s the calm, steady one, with more ease as a dancer, and you see it here as he walks her — no, dances her — through the crowd to their table.
There’s something delightful about the spontaneity and music of Gosling’s steps, and in the way Stone glides along with him so effortlessly that it seems like one person moving, not two. It was only after my second viewing of the film that I realized this is the last time they dance together, apart from the fantasy sequence that Mia imagines at the end. It marks a turning point: A few moments after that little slipping-through-the-crowd moment — which isn’t even a proper dance, just a lyrical bit of body language, really — the lovers’ lives aren’t the same, and they never will be.
The plot takes some unexpected twists, and in this way “La La Land” is more French than American. Or call it an American version of the French view of American musicals of the 1950s. Chazelle has acknowledged his debt to such films as “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “An American in Paris” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” But he’s also spoken of the influence of Demy, the French “New Wave” director who is most famous for his 1964 jazz tone-poem “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” a romance starring a young Catherine Deneuve, in which all the dialogue is sung. This ravishing film is absolutely drenched in melancholy, and its bittersweet outcome can leave you brooding for days.
Seeing it as a teenager, Chazelle told W magazine, was “the moment where I realized that art can change your life — and it’s best when your life changes when you least expect it. That was me first with ‘Umbrellas’ and, then, all musicals.”
Demy’s “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” from 1967, also left its mark on “La La Land.” This is a vastly more upbeat tribute to the Hollywood musical, again starring Deneuve, as well as her spunky, freckle-faced sister, Françoise Dorléac, and American stars Gene Kelly and George Chakiris (who played Bernardo in the film “West Side Story”). Chazelle’s choice to feature non-dancers as dancers in his musical echoes Demy’s use of Deneuve and Dorléac, who add invaluable charm. “La La Land”and “Rochefort” also share a breezy but deeply emotional spirit. There are other influences, including “Rochefort’s” opening dance number on the docks, with a chorus of young hopefuls spinning and bounding between trucks, and the way Dorléac falls in love with Kelly as she watches him play the piano, and how a joyful Deneuve skims the sidewalk with little twirling turns.
But the greatest effect Demy’s work had on “La La Land,” it seems, is in Chazelle’s view of Los Angeles as a city for young artists and dreamers, where musicians and actors (and filmmakers) can chase a fantasy, and where it might actually come true. Where gridlock on the 405 can be a stage for a massive, communal, life-
affirming dance. Where Griffith Park, overlooking the city lights, can be a launchpad for love. A passionate appreciation for the spiritual offerings of the city shines through in “La La Land.” And it has a precedent in Demy’s “Model Shop,” the Frenchman’s first English-language film, which takes place in 1969 Los Angeles.
“I stopped at this place that overlooks the whole city and it was fantastic,” says one of that film’s down-on-his-luck dreamers. As he speaks, the camera shows him in the hills, gazing at the same view of the city that would inspire Stone and Gosling’s tap dance nearly 50 years later. “To think some people claim it’s an ugly city when it’s really pure poetry, it just kills me.”
Chazelle has created his own ode to the poetic side of Los Angeles. But in a broader sense, with his inspired use of dance to tell this love story and intensify the magic, the director encourages viewers to see any urban landscape as a city of stars, full of hope as well as heartbreak, where creative risks can open a world of wonder.