"La La Land" is brilliant at handling the moment of primal fragility in all movie musicals -- when, amid all the realistic performance and photography, people suddenly start to sing and dance and behave in shamelessly musical ways. I'm talking about the private moment when the audience is forced to silently yell to itself, "My God, it's a Musical!"
The all-time classic bungle of that primal revelatory moment was the beginning of Robert Wise's musical "West Side Story" in which New York slums, in full naturalistic color, suddenly sprout a gang of nasty-looking juvenile delinquents who begin snapping their fingers and singing "Boy, boy, crazy boy ..."
Millions of people remained to discover that Wise's movie was a pretty good musical but "La La Land," to its eternal credit, dispenses with the problem in its opening minutes. We see a vast traffic jam where everything is at a standstill. It's a regular feature of L.A. life. Road rage? Forget it. In this movie, people suddenly start exiting their cars to sing and dance.
Score one HUGE point for Damien Chazelle's "La La Land," the odds-on favorite to pick up almost all the marbles at the next Oscarthon, even though it doesn't begin to deserve to.
This is a very good and lovable film, but it's really a lovable tribute to a beloved musical genre rather than a movie you can't help but love by itself. (See, for instance, "Singin' in the Rain," the all-time champion movie musical and another musical film besotted with L.A. and Hollywood.) By the final moments of "La La Land" -- which become unexpectedly moving after seeming to take a very wrong turn -- it even becomes something more than just an endearing declaration of love for a cinematic form we'll never again see as it once was.
Still, it's hard not to adore a pledge of love and devotion to something quite beyond us in the 21st Century where, as this movie wittily says, Hollywood is "a place where they worship everything and value nothing." Let's face it, we just don't have any more Fred Astaires or Gene Kellys or Ginger Rogers or Cyd Charisses or Ann Millers or Donald O'Connors anymore. Let's not even talk about the 21st century nonexistence of any more Cole Porters, George Gershwins, Harry Warrens or Richard Rodgers.
Give "La La's" stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone all the credit in the world -- and then some. As long as they don't snag Oscars from more deserving folks, they deserve love by the pound.
Gosling plays a jazz pianist so overtaken by nostalgia that he barks angrily at his sister for presuming to sit on the piano stool he claims once contained Hoagy Carmichael's precious posterior. Stone -- whose huge, expressive eyes are a miracle of nature -- plays an aspiring actress having little, if any, luck plying her trade on any size screen, even though she's been plugging away at it for five years. The closest she's come has been to become a barista on the Warner Brothers lot.
They meet in that aforementioned traffic jam. Birds are flipped. Obscene invective is muttered. Not long after, she wanders into the place where he now plays Christmas tunes on the piano after the home of his former gig turned into a "Tapas Samba" joint. Unfortunately, at his new cocktail bar, he is now employed to play, unchanged, the Christmas set list laid out by the proprietor. He's played by J.K. Simmons, Chazelle's previous award-harvester for his role in "Whiplash."
Put it this way: There are holiday tunes that any self-respecting jazz pianist would be fine playing -- most notably John Lewis' old favorite "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." "Jingle Bells," unfortunately, is not one of them. So he plays a compositions of his own, which he was expressly forbidden to do.
She is suddenly entranced to discover that the object of her angry, highway bird-flip is a pianist of admirable gifts as well as the possessor of a deeply romantic sensibility. (Kudos to actor Gosling for learning how to play the piano for this movie, just as Chazelle's last star, Miles Teller, learned how to play the drums for "Whiplash.")
In one of the movie's surprisingly large supply of fine wisecracks dispensed with on the fly, the aspiring actress says, when the subject comes up, "I'm letting life hit me until it gets tired." (There's also, by the way, a great little gag about the Prius as the unofficial urban car of L.A.)
John Legend arrives midway through as a former fellow student of our beleaguered musician. He hires him to play piano in a hard-working jazz/R&B band called "The Messengers." Real money will, at last, go into his pocket.
The two ambitious kids fall in love. And do a lot of singing and dancing to the film's original music composed by Justin Hurwitz. It's not bad but a long way indeed from Porter, Gershwin and company.
So sweet and admirable and endearing is this movie that if you're not careful you can feel dreadfully guilty about watching so much love and earnestness and, yes, Romanticism going into a film that hasn't a chance of coming close to the films it admires.
Its portrait of tourist L.A., though, is canny and acute. It makes stops at the legendary jazz club created by Howard Rumsey, The Lighthouse. It also makes a stop at Simon Rodia's Watts Towers. An exhilarating song and dance scene takes place in the Griffith Park Observatory after our loving couple is unable to finish watching "Rebel Without a Cause" when a theater projector goes kerflooey.
All innocent flirtations with amateurism end in the final half hour when it becomes surprisingly moving after threatening to fall apart.
It's an easy film to enjoy, even love. But it's unwise to carry that love to any irrational extremes.
Me? I'd be very careful tossing gold statues in its direction.
Three and a half out of four stars.
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, J.K. Simmons and John Legend
Director: Damien Chazelle
Running Time: 128 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for language