The first few seconds of “La La Land” show off one of the worst things about the city of Los Angeles: bumper to bumper traffic in the searing heat. But then, as the camera slides past these strangers, something happens. One person bursts into a song called “Another Day of Sun”. She climbs from her car and begins dancing. She is soon joined by another, then another, and another, until the entire 100 foot high interchange is filled with people joyously singing and dancing away…all in one unedited glorious camera shot.
By the time director/writer Damien Chazelle’s camera finally finds Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) on that packed highway, “La La Land” has you hooked. This unapologetically blissful and bittersweet musical makes your heart leap from your chest and only the most cold, cynical people will walk away from this one scowling.
Sebastian and Mia, two struggling artists, meet through coincidence. Mia, following a particularly embarrassing and rude acting audition, goes out on the town with her friends and happens to stroll into a supper club in which Sebastian is playing piano. His artistic integrity, a heavy message throughout, is insulted as he’s forced to play cheesy Christmas Carols for people that clearly don’t respect real jazz.
When Mia sees Sebastian and hears him play his own music, the room goes dark except for two spotlights on these star-crossed lovers. It’s a moment that could easily be dismissed as corny Hollywood romanticism, but what happens next is exactly what you wouldn’t expect.
There lies the sheer genius of “La La Land.” At almost every opportunity, Chazelle’s script pulls the rug out from under the very Hollywood convention this movie is emulating. It looks and sounds like a classic movie from the 1940s or ’50s, but Chazelle adds just the right amount of modern day cynicism with a touch of the art versus commerce battle to firmly ground it in present day.
But then Chazelle drops that finale on you. It’s a heart-bursting affair loaded with joy and sadness that nearly every person watching can relate.
Ryan Gosling spent months rehearsing, particularly on the piano, and the results speak for themselves. His performance is sure to gather him every award nomination possible and cements him as one of the best actors working today. His whistling ability alone is remarkable and he’s basically created a new level of “heartthrob” here.
However, Emma Stone is flat out amazing. There have been loads of fantastic performances from actresses this year, but Stone eclipses all of them. When she has her moment of conflict, it’s a full out heart breaker and only made better by Stone.
After all that, the showstopper of “La La Land” is when Stone breaks into “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).” It is an iconic movie moment and will live on for years as an example of when music and film actually transcend into something more.
Damien Chazelle and the composer, Justin Hurwitz, have really done a number on the movie world here. They have made a musical with zero recognizable songs in it (other than “Jingle Bells”) and pulled it off at an indescribable level. They need to prep their mantlepieces for the slew of awards they’ll surely rake in.
“La La Land” isn’t just a musical. It is an event. This dazzling movie wears its heart on its sleeve while whisking you off to a time when movies made you believe in love at first sight and that dreams, no matter how far fetched, can come true.