Telluride Film Festival has gained a reputation as one of the most exciting film festivals, much due to its tight run over Labor Day weekend among the gorgeous mountains and lakes of Telluride, Colorado. Finding an equally beautiful space for a selective re-run is a fool’s errand, but they could’ve done much worse than seaside Portsmouth, NH, richer in local texture than anywhere else in New Hampshire, I say as an experienced, highly judgmental resident since childhood.
The stars aren’t here, nor are the directors. The audience tends to skew older and the after-parties are more local affairs than glitzy interactions. All the same, I’ve found it a charming and irresistible kick-off to my own festival season since 2010. This year’s my seventh year going and my first seeing absolutely everything on display, including the passholder-only repertory screenings. My conversations will likely be few, my disposition mostly introverted, but I’ve never been so excited to get the festival season underway. Telluride, Toronto and Venice have left me insatiably excited for the month of viewing ahead.
Announcing itself with horns blaring, its camera coasting through cars as their owners are coasting through stations, La La Land (A-) wastes no time casting a spell so powerful you can’t imagine it holding. The opening scene is a dazzling opening statement, musically ballooning from the intimate and anonymous to the unanimous and expansive, all before the narrative even starts. It’s the grandest gesture director Damien Chazelle’s attempted yet, building on the frenetic electricity of his brunt force Whiplash while attaching to it a pure, optimistic desire too largely absent from that breakout. “Is it always going to be like this?” a character asks at one point.
Some viewers may be cross to learn the answer is “No”, but La La Land‘s following grace comes from the knowledge that such stellar, breathtaking moments are few and precious. As the camera’s roaming gaze settles on two anxious and impatient drivers, Emma Stone’s expressive aspiring actress Mia and Ryan Gosling’s hard-headed jazz pianist Sebastian. Each overlooked and embittered by the road to success and stardom, when they finally slam into one another they’re too moody to fall into a flurry of romance. Such is the way with Chazelle’s filmmaking, flirting with heart soaring romantic before throwing it diving off the highway to the ground.
Music courses constantly and purposefully through La La Land‘s veins, even when characters aren’t bursting into song, dancing to ingeniously improvisational jazz or sitting in complete silence. The saturated colors scream with as vivacious an energy as the songs, each playing elegantly against one another. As Mia’s friends head out on the town, their dresses may be obviously differentiated by color, but more subtly by the distinctive make of their dresses. Old Hollywood certainly didn’t have the wild display of diversity, in style and culture, that La La Land makes an effort of foregrounding. Mia and Sebastian’s interplay may be the film’s focal point, but there’s a world of passing and swirling dreams ebbing through them and constantly around them.
Dispensing with the cold cynicism that characterized Whiplash, Chazelle’s latest still settles on an inevitably downward emotional trajectory as Sebastian’s jazz dreams get sidelined by the growing kitsch of the music industry and Mia’s intense endeavors to prove her talent on her own are broken down by reality. The retro culture cinephiles and vinyl enthusiasts cling to isn’t dead, but it’s dying, or worse, decaying. It may be a fool’s venture to save it, but it’s hard enough to preserve it for those afraid they were born after their time has already passed. La La Land may well be Chazelle’s attempt to relive the glory days of Hollywood glamour, but this isn’t an affectational appropriation of faded culture, but an electrifying update and refitting of it.
All its adamant advocacy for musical and cinematic interplay isn’t just talk, either. Composer Justin Hurwitz’s blissfully interstellar music and Linus Sandgren’s grandiose, but attentive, cinematography is caught in a playfully combative dance, carefully moderated by Tom Cross’s necessarily tender editing. The film’s primary interplay, though, is between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the former afforded generous close-ups for minute comvulsions of her naturally honest face, the latter charting a subtler journey of heartbreak through his contemplative expressions and casually meltdowns. Some have an harder time being appreciated than others, but every starlight-soaked moment of La La Land deserves the attention its more pronounced show-stoppers demand.
Coming up tomorrow: Mia Hansen-Love’s Isabelle Huppert showcase Things to Come, Pablo Larrain’s sly semi-biopic Neruda and Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi translation thriller Arrival.