Call it focus or early career stagnation, but Damien Chazelle has found a pretty good wheelhouse to tool around in. Excepting his work-for-hire excursions on The Last Exorcism Part II and 10 Cloverfield Lane, the preternaturally accomplished 31-year-old Harvard grad and former competitive high-school drumming hopeful has built a consistent résumé over the course of his first three features. His 2009 debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, his 2014 breakthrough Whiplash, and now his 2016 candy-colored La La Land form a neat conceptual trilogy devoted to aspiring jazz musicians and the people who have the mixed fortune of loving them. Though the most obvious thematic through-line of his budding filmography is his heroes’ quixotic pursuit of one of the most out-of-time forms of popular music, Chazelle isn’t a chronicler of jazz devotees so much as as the patron saint of one-track narcissists, with even his newest and most palatable confection defined largely by its emotional aloofness toward the collateral damage that self-serving artists leave in their wake.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as sad, beautiful Angelenos Seb and Mia, he a struggling jazz pianist trying to make ends meet without selling out to Mammon, and she a barista with dreams of making it as an actress and a playwright. After a deferred meet-cute in which the future lovers blow each other off on the freeway on their way to their respective big days, they settle into a comfortable working groove, careening hand-in-hand through the streets of L.A. in vibrant Technicolor set pieces while supporting each other’s alternately promising and flailing careers, at least at first, until the lyrical montages come to an end. That honeymoon phase lasts until Seb’s dream of opening his own jazz club like those of old gets sidetracked by a steady-paying gig—offered by John Legend’s charming and lightly satanic band leader, the Justin Timberlake to Gosling’s less pliable Llewyn Davis—which puts him on the road and takes him away from Mia’s first steps into independent theater.
Superficially at least, La La Land marks a turn back to the romantic melodrama where Chazelle started and away from the frostier climes of Whiplash, a harsh teacher-versus-student fantasia that appropriately yielded a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for J.K. Simmons in a category dominated in recent years by serial killers. La La Land reads at times as a more refined version of Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, keeping its vacillation between melancholy and whimsy while transporting its magical-realist incorporation of staged musical numbers in the city from the more modest setting of Boston to the already hyper-mythologized Los Angeles. It also puts friendlier, more recognizable faces on a very similar narrative trajectory, again charting the dovetailing impractical hopes of precariously employed culture workers who meet on the precipice of either stardom or failure. With Gosling’s thick C.V. of sensitive taciturn men at his disposal, Chazelle even wrings more sympathy this time for his careerist male lead, the kind of guy who ditches his partner’s opening night for a photo shoot but feels badly about it all the same.
At its heart, though, La La Land isn’t just a more polished retread of Chazelle’s black-and-white but still sunny debut but a kindred spirit to its darker follow-up. Like Whiplash, which saw Miles Teller’s ambitious conservatory student Andrew beaten, broken, and at one point hurled into traffic on the strength of his conviction to prove his abusive teacher Simmons wrong about him, La La Land is about people—more specifically, men—who use their devotions to a greater cause, even one as quixotic and monetarily nonproductive as jazz drumming, to retroactively justify their commitment to themselves above all else. Though its smooth path from Sundance to Oscar darling might suggest a relatively easygoing film about hard work paid off and personal dreams realized, Whiplash is at bottom something far meaner and more interesting for it: a prickly character study of a guy who ditches his girlfriend (Supergirl’s Melissa Benoist, no less) to live the life of a douchebag ascetic; or, if you prefer, a testosterone-charged riff on The Red Shoes, about the dark combustible energy sparked between two misanthropes who can’t help but feed off each other’s violent energy, in music and in life. Seb may not be as much of a martyr to the cause as Andrew is, even resigning his pure aesthetic ideals for much of the film to work as a faceless band member in a popular jazz-rock outfit. Chazelle, though, seems to feel the same about him—that however much it might make him a narcissist who seeks to transform the world in his nostalgic image, Seb’s single-minded pursuit of his goals also makes him someone worth following, while his compromises in the middle stretch make him something far worse: common.
La La Land isn’t the first self-referential Hollywood movie to preoccupy itself with movie-star-pretty, self-enchanted visionaries who can’t seem to make time for the people in their orbit. Nor is at as standoffish as that description might imply. La La Land is inviting by Chazelle’s somewhat chilly standards; it’s colorful and buoyant where its immediate predecessor is plain (and where Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is desaturated), and deliberately wide and free-roaming where Whiplash is cramped and zoomed in on Teller’s bloody knuckles and quivering cymbals. Much of that is thanks to the naturally grounded presence of Stone, a performer who’s forged a nice career on the sly out of bringing a brassy feminine counterweight to stories about male social and sexual anxieties. If the mechanics of the plot aren’t quite on her character’s side, thanks to Chazelle’s apparent preference for Seb’s idiosyncratic dreams (curiously echoed earlier this year in Woody Allen’s Café Society) over her more mainstream desire to see herself on billboards, Stone still more or less gets equal footing as a moony-eyed talent who only has to be discovered in order to flourish.
Still, there’s an odd, nagging tension between the film’s romantic yearning for the past of Hollywood musicals and thriving jazz clubs, its hyper-stylized can-do presentation, and the stubborn aloofness coursing through its veins. Consider the film’s signature songs, plaintively sung numbers about the city as a fragmented place of discretely motivated dreamers (with shades of Paul Haggis’s Vogon poetry in Crash about how people crash their cars into each other in L.A. just to feel something), or about strivers who risk loneliness to follow their vision through to its execution. Read independently of the courtship between two likable actors whose previous collaborations (Crazy.Stupid.Love and Gangster Squad) have already established a baseline of movie chemistry, this is not the stuff of romance but of college application cover letters—generic position papers about the value of human ingenuity to pull people out of their circumstances and into “something wonderful,” as Seb croons.
It’s telling that while he’s ostensibly singing about the prospect of a relationship with Mia, the film’s vision of the future sees entanglements—romantic and social alike—as melancholy distractions from the real show of an artist or an entrepreneur’s life, and locates wonder almost entirely in the fulfillment of one’s abstract life plan. If that focus on singular pursuits harms anything, though, it isn’t the central relationship, which benefits from this rare frankness about how Hollywood romances among jet setters are transient by nature, but the film’s depiction of jazz, Chazelle’s apparent first love. If Whiplash comes into its own in its delirious finale by stripping the stage down to become a playful game of one-upmanship between a pair of musicians working in an art everyone but them insists is dying, La La Land never quite gets at the vitality of what its leads believe in, treating both forms of performance largely as means to an end, rather than the collaborative arts that they really are. Early in their salad days, Seb takes Mia to a jazz club and schools the skeptical neophyte on why jazz isn’t just background noise but a dynamic form that thrives on the give-and-take between different performers. Even as it pumps up the energy in set piece after set piece, La La Land can’t claim to capture that dynamism for itself, settling for an atomized view of its titular setting that treats each of its struggling artists, to borrow a phrase from one of the songs, as merely someone in the crowd plotting their own course through, to hell with those around them.