Infectiously affable La La Land injects new life into a tried and true Hollywood tradition: the musical. A toe-tapping throwback to the tenure of Gene Kelley and Fred Astaire, Damien Chazelle’s Dom Pérignon-bubbly follow-up to excellent Whiplash is a joyous and bittersweet ode to a time when Hollywood peddled contagious cheer and catchy carols, pretty performers and movie magic. All that and more. Complete with lively choreography and an instantly antiseptic soundtrack, La La Land is an upbeat cure-all to the depressive onslaught of 2016 . And I don’t even like musicals.
Chazelle’s syncopated sophomore feature opens on a poppy fever dream that transforms L.A.’s dreary gridlock traffic into a visual and auditory delight. Performers leap from their stalled automobiles, somersaulting down the median strip and belting out the overtly joyous “Another Day of Sun”. It’s here we meet Mia and Sebastian, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling respectively. A wannabe actress, Mia mouths lines for her impending audition while desperate jazz-head Sebastian replays the same Charlie “Bird” Parker lick over and over on his well-worn cassette. Like Indiana and Marion or Rick and Ilsa, their romance begins adversarially; with a honked horn and a flippant extension of another kind of bird.
La La Land’s opening number is bright and colorful, from the primary sundresses to its blatantly 1950s-influenced bubblegum cheer, but its in-your-face elation is only half the pie. While La La Land is able to go full speed on “Smiley Face Fun in the Sun” mode, especially in that first act with such effervescent numbers as the all-female “Someone in the Crowd”, that fizzy poppy tone is only part of the sum total.
In many ways, Sebastian is that other half. Rakish, ruffled and moody; a salt-licked urchin dedicated to a dying art form. He is, to a degree, Mia’s antithesis. She’s a highway of smiles; he a cross commentator. She is the future. He is the past. The overlap is orgasmic. Over the course of a sun-baked Los Angeles Winter, Mia and Sebastian’s paths cross once, twice, three times again. Their distaste warms into soft affection with a tap dance under streetlamp. It’s delightfully campy, their budding love; not unlike a nip in your coffee, it warms you from the inside out.
With La La Land, grins will plaster themselves to your face early on and refuse to let go. Mia and Sebastian have more chemistry than Walter White and it doesn’t hurt that this marks Stone and Gosling’s third outing together. Together their characters encourage one another to reach for the stars, to pursue their passion no matter the cost. The ultimate invoice for that dedication is hard and Chazelle inserts an unbelievably rendered, near tear-inducing sequence that asks, much like he does in Whiplash, if the ends justify the means. It’s a more cheery packaging but his thesis question remains: what is the price of pursuing one’s dreams?
Mia embarks to put on a self-written and directed one-woman show. Sebastian abandons the purity of “real jazz” and joins a pop group to save up the necessary duckets to open his own club. But as each stretch themselves towards success, their romance twinkles. The City of Stars may be known for sucking but it also swallows. Through it all, the music from Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, remains an ambrosial guidepost. Warm, thoughtful and personal, their song book stays true to the spirit of the characters and helps move the plot along, allowing Mia and Sebastian the opportunity to say what they might not otherwise in “real life”. Unlike many musicals, the heightened reality of La La Land works because of, not in spite of, its musical numbers.
Stone is astonishingly well-matched to the musical heights expected of her and her silky vocals shine throughout. Seriously, girl has some pipes. Gosling can surely carry a tune, though he’s not a natural singer the way Stone is. He’s no Russell Crowe but nor is he a Justin Timberlake. And for La La Land’s purposes, that works wonders. His crooning is raw and unpolished, a proud reflection of his character. While each are outstanding apart, they are even better together. The faint little laughs they share in the film’s showstopper “City of Stars” conveys the rich, real energy shared between the characters and the depth of emotion each is able explore through song.
Choreographed by Mandy Moore (yes, that Mandy Moore), La La Land remains light on its feet while staying grounded in reality. Aside from that large chorus opening act, the song and dance is intimate. Focusing on emotional development, their fleet-footed movement reflects their inner workings. There’s meaning in every lyric, purpose to every step. They flow into and out of one another, like Mia and Sebastian. Polar opposites attracting and repelling, attracting and repelling.
Chazelle manages it all beautifully. From the acting – I have never been more infatuated with Emma Stone’s unbelievable range – to the music and dance, the daring cinematography – Linus Sandgren FTW – to the uplifting but bittersweet tone, Chazelle’s gloriously romantic screenplay to the unique artistic choices – like with Whiplash again, the last 10 minutes are simply jaw-dropping – La La Land is essential cinema. It is the reason we go to the movies.
CONCLUSION: A dazzlingly rendered musical masterpiece, ‘La La Land’ is an unseasonably joyous throwback that marries the best elements of Golden Age Hollywood to the best elements of modern cinema. Splendidly performed by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, this rhythmic sensation is infused with love of life and hard-hitting melancholic quandaries too. Quite simply, I loved every second of it.