128 min. | PG-13
What a beautiful, special film La La Land is. It’s simultaneously a throwback to classic Hollywood musicals and a modern romance told with style. To see it is to embrace a tale of dreams, love, heartache and triumph, and experience a level of filmmaking that’s superior to most anything seen today.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle has set the story in the present while capturing the spirit of classic Hollywood musicals in a resplendent way. There’s a grand score, singing and dancing, but at heart it’s a love story about artists pursuing their dreams.
In Los Angeles, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is an aspiring jazz pianist, and Mia (Emma Stone) an aspiring actress. They’re meant for each other, and as they fall in love, it’s like a dream. Sebastian invites her to see Rebel Without A Cause, which leads to the Griffith Observatory. It all feels surreal. Chazelle isn’t channeling reality here, he’s conveying how it feels to fall in love. Visually, the screen is colorful and dynamic, and the music is unforgettable, especially “A Lovely Night,” “City of Stars” and “Planetarium,” during which Sebastian and Mia dance under the stars.
Eventually the reality of being struggling artists takes over, and the tone gets serious. Sebastian wants to open a jazz club and is all about the purity of his art—it doesn’t matter if he has an audience, because it’s only about the music. Mia wants to be a Hollywood star, and believes she needs an audience to validate her work. But saving money, surviving auditions, and remaining determined can be extraordinarily difficult. Where the story goes is honest and true, culminating in a fabulous ending that might bring you to tears.
Neither Gosling nor Stone sings or dances particularly well. This isn’t important, though. They exude an easy chemistry on screen, and we root for the relationship to work. It does work, just not necessarily how we expect. What’s fascinating is the way the film pays homage to old Hollywood while telling a different story. Their relationship evolves truthfully; note how Chazelle uses upbeat song and dance numbers early on, but later only duets and solos.
It’s hard to decide what I loved most about La La Land. The opening musical number, “Another Day Of Sun,” is done in a nearly five-minute, seemingly unbroken take—an astounding feat of choreography and camera work. The songs are sweet, tender and perfect. The performances are appropriately adorable, abrasive and transcendent. I loved it all.