Ah, puzzle films. Many of my most deeply moving cinematic memories—think of Resnais or Ruiz or Wong—have come from such works, where the intricacy and even obscurity of storytelling jostles and fuses with the frankness of emotions. La La Land has little use for puzzles, unless they’re part of the technical complications that go into the choreography of its slam-bang musical numbers. (Why have the introductory highway hoedown just unfold in one take, when you can also include Matrix-style camera swivels to capture bicycle pirouettes in mid-air?) No, Damien Chazelle’s goal in his follow-up to Whiplash is a boldly direct one: to flood the screen with charm, to bring down the house with joy. Walking into my screening after having had my fair share of dour and difficult festival entries, I could scarcely think of a nobler aim for cinema. Less than twenty minutes later, I was gasping for air. La La Land’s tunnel vision of cheer is a winking steamroller, an avalanche of tinsel and cellophane and Muzak. For a fable full of gentle dreamers, its touch is relentlessly aggressive. Chazelle debuted in 2009 with Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a beguiling ode to the tuneful Hollywood of old, shot in black-and-white 16mm. His new film suggests a splashy color expansion of it, but the bellicose approach to music and dance brings it far closer to the militaristic squeeze of Whiplash. It’s designed to not so much seduce audiences as pummel them into submission. Swoon, goddamnit, swoon!
Jazz aficionado Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress and playwright Mia (Emma Stone) are the couple at the heart of a candy-colored Los Angeles studded with retro dives and plastered with classic movie posters. They fall in love and chase their respective muses, their creative drives perpetually suspended between integrity and compromise, or, as John Legend’s sellout bandleader puts it, between traditionalists and revolutionaries. “Too nostalgic?” wonders Mia with regards to whether viewers will embrace her work. Sebastian’s reply (“Fuck ‘em”) is meant to reflect Chazelle’s own purity of purpose, which is hilarious coming from a filmmaker so cannily fixated on approval. Singin’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg are heavily referenced, along with Rebel Without a Cause and, uh, Vertigo, yet the yearning for a vanished brand of artifice rarely ventures beyond nudging and into a discourse with cine-history, the way it does in Une femme est une femme or New York, New York or One From the Heart. Amid these metallic facsimiles of bliss and melancholia, the actors labor to locate emotional verity. Never the most giving of leading men, Gosling is touchingly absurd as he attempts to wrap his sarcastic edge in romantic cotton; and Stone’s innate merriment and forthrightness expose the confectionery vacancy of the saturated hues surrounding her. I felt for them both, not as characters torn by enchantment and art but as very diligent participants in the season’s most lavish karaoke session.
A nation’s past rather than a genre’s informs J: Beyond Flamenco, a much more inquisitive musical. The Spanish director, Carlos Saura, is a seasoned archeologist of dances: Blood Wedding, El Amor Brujo, Flamenco and Fados are sinuous laboratory films, studio distillations of history and folklore via figures in motion. The Aragonian jota, with its Arabian and Asian influences, is the music of choice here, illustrated with a procession of performances at once rigorous and ardent, like meticulously controlled, five-minute storms. A bare rehearsal hall fills with young students eager with castanets, a painterly tableau breaks into crimson and green undulations. “The heartbeat of my homeland, the best of songs,” sings a starlet in a grainy 30s romance, blown up to fill the screen and discussed by a group of rapt buffs: “Look at how close their bodies are, it’s a form of courtship...” One segment employs jota beats to contemplate the Spanish Civil War as a lingering spiritual trauma, with brutal newsreel flickers illuminating a classroom where a serious-faced little boy might be the very young Saura absorbing the turmoil that will later infuse his works. (“Gently educated in afternoons of panic,” goes one particularly evocative lyric.) Encompassing various different moods, tempos and techniques, this lush and variegated film concludes on a heartening communal note and a reminder that cameras and subjects possess a dance of their own.
One last musical, Danny, my favorite of them: Jonathan Demme’s Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, an elating snapshot of the closing night in the pop superstar’s 20/20 Experience World Tour. The setting is Las Vegas’ cavernous MGM Grand Garden Arena, but the feeling throughout is one of intimacy and inclusion: Demme’s fleet and limber camera connects with the stagehands and backup musicians behind the scenes of the event, evoking a keen sense of shared expression that continues to reverberate even after Timberlake takes center stage. Electric and impish in his tux, the singer paces good-naturedly as the show is about to start, then comes out and drinks in the thunderous applause with a little boy’s earnest grin. In his mid thirties, he still has traces of his squeaky NSYNC days yet now commands the spotlight with a true showman’s smoothness and rapacity. The honeycomb proscenium vibrates with renditions of “SexyBack,” “What Goes Around” and “Suit & Tie,” but Timberlake is rarely alone: art is at its most joyous as an ensemble for Demme, who shapes this vigorous, coruscating record with continuous appreciation of the dancers and players who, often foregrounded in the frame, luxuriate in their own funky arias. I left the theater on such a high that I felt I could have saved on airfare and instead just float back home.
Back to you, my friend.