Thursday, December 29, 2016

Contenders ’16: La La Land

It is easier to be scuffling in New York rather than Los Angeles, because you can do it without a car here. You are also more likely to find talented but gig-challenged jazz musicians in The City. However, Mia Dolan manages to run into Sebastian Wilder more frequently than either would prefer. At least, that is how it starts. Eventually, it evolves into something serious, but these things never last in LA, do they? The attractive couple will have to enjoy the music and the romance while it lasts in Damien Chazelle’s movie musical, La La Land (trailer here), which screens during MoMA’s Contenders series, in addition to seven hundred-some theaters nationwide.

Wilder is in a bad place. Recently, he has been torturing himself over the loss of a storied jazz club relaunched as a samba and tapas joint. He is also on the verge of losing his cocktail piano gig. Despite their bad starts, pursuing Dolan gives him some needed focus. Even though she already has a boyfriend, the well-heeled Greg Earnest will be no match for a revival screening of Rebel Without a Cause and a midnight excursion to Griffith Observatory. Wilder will even teach Dolan (and hopefully the rest of the audience) to appreciate jazz. Unfortunately, when Wilder goes on tour with his former smooth jazz nemesis, the time apart will put a strain on their relationship.

You have to give Chazelle credit for what he pulls off with La La Land. While his first crack at the genre, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench was a very nice film, La La is the best original movie musical since maybe Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which is obviously a touchstone referential film for Chazelle. The film and the music composed by Justin Hurwitz (with lyricists Pasek and Paul) is just that good. Frankly, if “City of Stars” does not win the Oscar for best original song than the Academy must not have any ears whatsoever. “Stars” will be one for the Great American Songbook, but “Another Day of Sun” and “A Lovely Night” are also total winners.

But wait, there’s more—like Mandy Moore’s energetic yet stylishly old school choreography. She cleverly incorporates the traffic-bound cars in the opening flag-waving “Another Day of Sun” (beautifully shot by Linus Sandgren) and stages an awesomely ambitious third act fantasia, somewhat in the tradition of An American in Paris (both the film and the Broadway musical).

Even though he looks ten years older than Emma Stone’s Dolan (at least), Ryan Gosling convincingly broods and self-sabotages like a jazz musician. He also learned a heck of a lot of piano for the film, which is cool. Emma Stone is charming as Dolan, but she also conveys all the desperation and self-doubt plaguing the struggling actress. There is a great deal of chemistry between the two co-leads, as one might hope, since this is their third romantic pairing together.

Even though La La boasts a huge cast, very few of them register besides Stone and Gosling. Of course, there is no missing J.K. Simmons’ arch cameo as the club owner who fires Wilder (sort of a victory lap for his Whiplash Oscar). Likewise, John Legend is reasonably credible as Wilder’s sellout classmate. More importantly, legit jazz musicians Kevin Axt, Wayne Bergeron, Peter Erskine, Dan Higgins, Andy Martin, Bob Sheppard, and Graham Dechter keep the soundtrack real and sounding terrific as the La La Land Jazz Ensemble.

La La Land is as good as you’ve heard—maybe even better. It seems strange Chazelle’s under-seen Park Bench has not been reissued to capitalize, but maybe that will happen if Oscar comes calling. Regardless, it is terrific film that stays true to Chazelle jazz roots and his big screen musical influences. Very highly recommended, La La Land screens next Wednesday (1/4) as part of MoMA’s contenders and is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire.