Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s remarkably assured and incendiary second feature from 2014, made the case that artistic accomplishment was predominantly a cloistered process of Darwinian nastiness, redeemed only in an evanescent performance that the artist must keep repeating to make good on his dark investment. The final scene – a drum solo – shows the awesome power of that singular moment but also telegraphs the Sisyphean cruelty of the comedown. Since Whiplash, Chazelle, who improbably is only 31, has vaulted forward with his throwback musical La La Land.
A comprehensive triumph, the movie stands as both a tribute to Hollywood grandness and a paean to the exhilaration of film. More substantively, it continues Chazelle’s contemplation of the clash between artistic ambition and personal happiness. He has leavened the grimly binary assessment laid out in Whiplash. In La La Land, he sees the narcissism required for achievement as more measured, and the outlook for balance as more optimistic, even if the proposition could still bring heartbreak.
And there is considerable art in the movie itself. The boffo first scene is as bold and audacious as film gets, and evokes pure, heart-pounding joy. Emma Stone is luminous as Mia, a turbocharged girl next door trying to make it as an actress, Ryan Gosling querulously magnetic as Sebastian, an idealistic jazz pianist. While their screen chemistry is potent, Rodgers and Astaire they are not – both have rather thin voices and dance by the numbers if reasonably well. But even in that there is a very purposeful meta point: they are endeavoring bravely and publicly in spite of their doubts and limitations, as any successful artist ultimately must do.
It is salutary that La La Land is a comprehensive triumph for a young American filmmaker only three features into his career. In addition, the film is a fine holiday escape from the dismal state of the country and the world. Best of all, it is a movie resolutely about art and its power not merely to elate and upset but also to clarify and resolve. The superb final sequence – which channels both Sliding Doors and Casablanca – ends on a bittersweet thump of destiny. The hard truth is that it’s a moment that had to be.
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