Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, the old-fashioned musical charming its way to the Oscars, opens on the most Los Angeles of modern Los Angeles showstoppers imaginable: A traffic jam on the 110 freeway turns into a symphony of strangers dancing out of their cars in perfect syncopation, crooning about their lofty dreams with the same unadulterated optimism, flashing a whole lot of jazz hands. Later, its two lovers swoon cheek-to-cheek inside L.A.’s Griffith Observatory, gliding into the starry night like Fred and Ginger.
La La Land is bright, it’s buoyant, and it’s big, like the grandest of the MGM musicals that dominated 1950s screens, shot on the soundstages that still stand like hallowed cathedrals to cinephiles across the city. With Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone paired up as two Hollywood dreamers—he a jazz-loving piano man frustrated by his failures, she a struggling actress who wants to be a star—La La Land reaches across half a century of cinema to celebrate classics like Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and A Star Is Born, some of our greatest film musicals about making it and falling in love in showbiz.
The Best Picture frontrunner’s biggest debt, however, and the bittersweetness that makes it linger, is owed to the jazzy 1964 French movie-musical that dared to undermine all those crowd-pleasing golden age Hollywood fantasies: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg). Jacques Demy’s French New Wave masterpiece earned four Academy Award nominations, including Best Screenplay for Demy and three nods for composer Michel Legrand, whose unforgettable jazz-infused love theme soars and swells and haunts in its minor turns, a clear influence on La La Land’s musical identity.
The best known of Demy’s lovelorn trilogy (preceded by Lola and followed by The Young Girls of Rochefort), Cherbourg is the ultimate un-romantic romance—a mournful dirge for the slow, amnesiac undoing of love. But as it opens amid vivid splashes of bright hues and singsong jubilation, the passions of its young lovers, shop girl Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) and a young mechanic named Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) are as dreamy as they get in Cherbourg’s tiny seaside town in the south of France. (Its famous theme “I Will Wait For You” was covered dozens of times and became a pop hit in English, but was put to particularly good use in the “Jurassic Bark” episode of Futurama.)
Cherbourg’s conceit is that it’s entirely sung through, Legrand’s soul-stirring score turning the most banal of dialogue between characters into one larger-than-life melody. Everything in Genevieve and Guy’s candy-colored world exists in a heightened emotional state in which love lasts forever, just like it promises to in Hollywood movies. Not even his conscription into the Algerian War can come between the pair and the plans they’ve made for the future. But when Guy boards the train that will take him away for longer than either of them will realize, the camera goes with him. Demy’s iconic shot leaves its gaze on Genevieve, left behind at the station as the distance grows by the second, promising to wait for Guy “if it takes forever.”
Written before L.A. transplant Chazelle scored a hit with his Oscar pic Whiplash, La La Land stars Gosling as Sebastian, a cranky piano player obsessed with owning his own place where great jazz can be saved from obsolescence. Stone’s Mia is an actress who works as a barista on a studio lot, worshipping classic Hollywood icons while trudging through one depressing audition after another. Both have been defeated by the L.A. rat race—until they meet, banter, bicker, and fall. They save one another from cynicism. They energize one another’s dreams. Theirs is the kind of love between dreamers that musicals were made for.
With their refreshingly imperfect voices, Mia and Sebastian break into song to express their feelings as much apart as they do together, in memorable and melancholic ditties like Gosling’s “City of Stars” and Stone’s “The Fools Who Dream.” Chazelle shot on film in CinemaScope like the old timers did, filming his stars singing and dancing against a vivid Los Angeles cityscape—a vast canvas filled with the ghosts of dreamers past, whenever their emotions get too big to contain.
When Gosling and Stone hoof it together, as they do in one stunning choreographed number in the dusky Hollywood Hills, they conjure memories of how Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers used to tap and twirl their way towards the happy ending, the consummation of a metaphorical musical union. Later, as they dance cheek to cheek into the stars inside Griffith Observatory’s empty planetarium, Chazelle borrows a note from Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron’s intimate dreamlike ballet from An American in Paris.
It’s a starry-eyed ode to dreamers and lovers filled with bright colors that magnify the aspirations and restless energies of its characters. But Chazelle, who has named Cherbourg among his favorite films, similarly keeps an ace up his sleeve right out of the Demy playbook. His La La Land might be read as much a response to Cherbourg as that film was a harsh rebuke to the Hollywood musicals that came before.
Even by the 1960s, when Demy put his own spin on the genre, the MGM fantasies of a decade prior had been turning on themselves. Singin’ in the Rain, cinema’s best backstage musical about show business and the changing landscape of movies, was already meta in 1952. The brilliance of Cherbourg is in how it immerses its audience into the indulgence and artifice of the genre only to subvert it with the realest talk film musical audiences had seen.
Cherbourg flips from saccharine to subversive once time and doubt start chipping away at the impenetrable armor of love. Pregnant with Guy’s child, Genevieve is shocked to discover she can, in fact, survive without him. “People only die of love in movies,” her mother scolds. Distance makes the heart grow forgetful. She marries another man to secure her future, and when Guy finally returns home he too moves onward and upward. Life goes on, and love goes away—even if a shadow of what once was and could have been remains in their shared memories.
So when Gosling’s Sebastian asks, “Why do you say ‘romantic’ like it’s a dirty word?” it’s because Chazelle is well familiar with the gulf between the romantic optimism of the movies and the banalities of real life. Later, he amends La La Land’s Cherbourg-esque pangs with a sequence borrowed from Gene Kelly’s phantasmagoric “Broadway Melody” dream montage in Singin’ in the Rain, one that applies a heart-stopping salve to the impulse toward cynicism.
Chazelle’s clear-eyed romantic streak surfaces every time La La Land breathes and flutters and swells with its wonderfully nostalgic hopefulness, particularly when Justin Hurwitz’s exquisitely melancholy songs and score take center stage. Mia and Sebastian’s most memorable prelude-to-romance false start takes place in the restaurant where he grudgingly plays Christmas jingles for tips. He’s compelled to play something else as the lights dim for the film’s audience, and an exquisite, yearning, aching new song surges forth. It is his and Mia’s song. When Chazelle pays off the emotional impact he earns in that one moment, the result is real and powerful and overwhelming—and utterly, beautifully cinematic.
Like Cherbourg, La La Land celebrates the dreamers, the fools, the fantasies we spin for ourselves, and, sometimes, the ones we share with others. It also understands how life has a way of throwing us off course of the plans we make. In Cherbourg that lesson feels ordinarily tragic. La La Land makes it all seem extraordinarily okay.