The opening scene of this love letter to Hollywood – a song and dance number on a jam packed LA freeway – is so audacious and expertly rendered that you almost regret its placement, fearing the rest of the film will never be able to match such perfection. When it is followed by another number that takes us from our heroine’s (Emma Stone) apartment to an industry pool party, your fears are alleviated. Thereafter, the film becomes more personal, relying heavily on the chemistry between Stone and Ryan Gosling (chemistry that was established in a prior film, Crazy Stupid Love) while telling a standard tale of reaching for fame, compromising dreams for money and security, and the wages of those endeavors on true love.
I thought director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash was the best film of 2014, and others clearly trust his judgment, because his second effort is as risky a gamble as you can make – a modern musical. It works on almost every level. As stated, the romantic leads are compelling and it is clear they connect. Stone is notable, near heartbreaking, as the aspiring actress. The musical numbers are intricate and dazzling. The quieter moments, including several standard taps and waltzes, are beautifully done, and serve not only as support for their love, but as homage to the musicals that came before. And Los Angeles, as a fantastical costar, is charmingly rendered.
Chazelle showed a competency with music and movement in Whiplash but nothing in that film necessarily suggested the ability to stage the intricate, edit-free song and dance numbers that serve as the heart of this film. Filming a stationary jazz drummer is elemental stuff compared to the sequences in this picture.
It really is a joy. If I have a criticism, it is simply one of imbalance. The first two numbers are so bravura, you end up waiting for one or two more of the same. When they do not appear, it is not a knock on what replaced them. But the tone is quieter, and the story pretty unoriginal. So I found myself waiting for the knockout punch that never comes. That is on me, not Chazelle, as he opted for a more muted, bittersweet conclusion which is affecting in its own right.
Gosling and Stone do all of their own singing; what is on the screen is all the more impressive given the film’s relatively meager $30 million budget; and the movie is shot in Cinemascope, which broadens its impact (unlike Quentin Tarantino’s 70mm The Hateful Eight, Cinemascope is actually suited to this film’s movement and locale). One of the best films of the year.