There are movies that are built around a character and an actress that leave no one immune to their delights. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of those. Casablanca is another. Shakespeare in Love is one too. Whether those onscreen who pursue them are left with happiness by the end or grief makes no difference because the real relationship that’s happening is between you and her. You, no matter what your sexual preference. You, no matter how cold and bitter your heart. That movie this year at Telluride is La La Land and that actress is Emma Stone.
We live our lives too quickly. We don’t realize it until enough time has passed to take stock of the decades that came before. What we’re doing at in the moment always feels like a dress rehearsal for the real thing yet to come. Once your 20s are gone, then your 30s, and then your 40s … enough time has gone by that you can see each decision, each year like books on a shelf or bricks in a wall. They sit there. They are the truth of our lives. They are who we are. They are the answer to the question we were too busy living to ask: What is to become of us?
Love, though, is a different matter. It’s hard to know if you’ve let the right love go until enough years have gone by to prove it. La La Land, despite being a musical set in Los Angeles as a tremendously entertaining romantic comedy, is really about the right and wrong choices. La La Land is everything you’ve already read. A triumph of cinema, a work of art, an homage to the great French musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that seem to have, at least partly, inspired it. But if La La Land was only its first two thirds, that’s all it would be. In the end it transcends all of those things to become a piece that strikes at the heart like the last match to light a fire on a cold winter night.
No doubt Damien Chazelle is a blessed human being. A Harvard grad whose debut film landed him a Best Picture nomination. After Whiplash, he was the hot new kid in town. The beauty of being a talented white male in Hollywood is that you are given so much right off the bat — freedom to grow as a filmmaker, even if your first efforts are ignored or hated; freedom to try new things, because if you fall you have a soft place to land. We build our Hollywood heroes that way, those behind the camera, and yes, it’s easy to harbor a bit of resentment toward Damien Chazelle for that reason. But resentment isn’t going to help you when you’re watching La La Land because there is no amount of envy large or small, no irritation that can withstand the charms of Emma Stone. Go ahead and try. You will fail.
Chazelle’s Los Angeles is like my Los Angeles and the cities of so many others. It’s a mix of the old and the new, the dreamy illusions and the hard realities. It’s a city that does not stagnate but changes, for better or worse, every day. Its magic is not on the surface but buried deep, to be discovered and unearthed as you drive its expanse from the coast to the Valley to downtown to Griffith Park to Hollywood. It is either the place you came to make your dreams come true or it’s the place where you watch them die. The number of dreamers who come here to get a foot in the door is astounding — even as the industry, as it once was, is basically fading away. Not a lot of room here for actresses anymore and this point is driven home quite beautifully in the film. If you think La La Land is going to be a movie where the man is the only genius and the woman is the prop, think again. This film is balanced across the board (though, as the daughter of a lifelong jazz drummer, I will mildly object to Stone’s only knowledge of jazz being Kenny G.). Even if these are two kids with a head full of dreams and hearts full of love, sooner or later we know that they — like you, like me — will face that moment in life when a person must take stock of the choices he or she has made.
The magic of La La Land is that it’s as much a love letter to the washed out, over-crowded, ugly beautiful of this vast landscape that is Los Angeles as it is an homage to cinema itself — which, in some ways, is the idealistically beating heart this city still offers to the tourists and dreamers who come here. Hollywood is an illusion, of course. Skies are backdrops, actors can float if given the right harness, music appears out of nowhere, and characters can burst out in song. The convention of the film is solid and works on its own terms.
But this film, unlike Whiplash, has more in store than convention. It’s more than a guy making a movie about an out-of-fashion form like the musical, the way Ryan Gosling’s character holds on to the traditional origins of jazz to keep them alive. It’s more than a movie that makes the argument that cinema still has enormous power over us if we remember that our best movie illusions aren’t done on a computer. Our best tools play out on the actors faces, with their dancing bodies, done up in vibrant costumes. Chazelle has captured something magical on screen with both Stone and Gosling, whose pairing sparks and sizzles the same way Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse’s did, or Fred and Ginger, or Fred and Rita, or Fred and Leslie. Back then, you saw them dance together and you thought, wow. That’s it. Put them in a movie.
But Chazelle’s ace in the hole is Emma Stone who brings it completely, all or nothing, to Chazelle’s canvas. Whatever he saw in her previously has been fully realized here. With any other actress, the film might have felt like an academic exercise, albeit a beautiful one, but Stone takes it to a level that puts it in the pantheon of the all- time greats. It’s so rare anymore to see any film put a woman at the center — one who matters just as much, if not more, than the male lead. Her Mia is not one who suffers, but one who thrives with ambition and curiosity and intelligence. What I loved most about La La Land was that Chazelle gave us the chance to remember what Hollywood used to be like — when a movie could still be all about the girl.