Every once in a while, you come out of a movie theater feeling like you’re walking on air. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it restores your faith in the power of cinema. Damien Chazelle’s dreamy neo-retro musical La La Land is one of those rare films. It’s stunningly ambitious and thrillingly alive the way the best movies are. With just his third feature, it’s safe to say that Chazelle is a major American filmmaker. With 2014’s Whiplash, the sado-masochistic teacher-pupil drama, the writer-director seemed to arrive on the Sundance scene fully-formed as an ace storyteller, turning a milieu that few moviegoer’s probably thought they could care about (jazz) into a tense and toxic viper’s nest of artistic ambition and sacrifice. But with La La Land, Chazelle also displays a mature sense of style and emotional depth far beyond his years. At 31, he’s precocious and confident enough to tackle a mothballed genre long thought to be corny, old-fashioned, and way past the point of resuscitation.
An unapologetic love letter to the color-crazy song-and-dance fantasias of Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and classic Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, La La Land stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as two young artists struggling to achieve their dreams in contemporary Los Angeles. Stone plays Mia, a sunny, wannabe actress who barely gets by as a barista at a coffee shop on the lot of a Hollywood studio. Every day she takes a latte order from some undeserving ingénue (in other words, not her) and is a day closer to giving up. She’s inside the Dream Factory, but it remains just out of reach. Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist whose traditional taste in music and stubborn idealism put him at odds with the century he finds himself in. He’d rather make it his way (alone with his vinyl collection) or not make it at all.
The film opens with a bravura five-minute sequence on an L.A. freeway as cars are stuck in gridlock traffic—a prosaic enough daily frustration that Angelinos know all too well (and a wink, perhaps, to 8 ½ and Nashville). But Chazelle turns the cacophony of honking horns, tinny radio music, and cell phone chatter into something unexpectedly lyrical and poetic. One passenger in a yellow polka-dot dress begins to sing an upbeat ode to California, then gets out of her car and breaks into dance. Before you know it, all of the other passengers in the cars around her are joining her until the 105 turns into an explosion of pure sun-kissed joy. All of these people trapped in their own private compartments of annoyance joining together in one synchronized leaping, singing communion. It’s a hell of an opening gambit. But it tells the audience right off the bat what to expect—two hours of blissful shoot-the-works exhuberance.
Mia and Sebastian are two of the drivers stuck in traffic. And they have a fleeting encounter at the end of the opening number. It isn’t exactly a classic Tinseltown meet-cute introduction (he honks at her to get moving, she flips him the finger). But as their paths continue to fatefully cross, they find themselves drawn to one another the way movie couples have been since, well, forever. She continues to go to soul-crushing auditions. He continues to tinkle away on the piano playing standards as background noise at a restaurant. But they have each other. And their romance, especially as it begins to blossom, is as fizzy and transporting as a flute of champagne. Especially an early Astaire-and-Charisse-style song-and-dance number overlooking the glittering jewel-box cityscape of L.A. below. There’s a moment when their fingers interlace in a darkened movie theater that somehow manages to be the most romantic thing I’ve seen at the movies all year. Between this and 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love, I can’t think of an onscreen couple with better chemistry. (We can all forget about Gangster Squad.) They literally float away as they dance together in La La Land. And you don’t question it for a second. You just think, Of course they do.
In the film’s handful of intoxicating showstoppers, Stone shows a previously untapped physical grace to go with the more tentative, self-conscious softness of her breathy singing voice. She’s not a belter (thank god) and you lean in to hear the words coming out of her mouth. Gosling, finally making good use of his prepubescent Mickey Mouse Club training, is silken and smooth on his feet, his singing voice is soft and plaintive like a young Chet Baker. And composer Justin Hurwitz’s songs (especially the dewy “City of Stars”) have both an intimacy and an occasional irony that act as counterweights to all of the razzle-dazzle we’re taking in with our eyes.
Of course, La La Land is more than just a helium-light love story that checks off L.A. tourist attractions on its steady march toward a happily-ever-after sunset. We in the audience (and the characters on screen) have seen too many Hollywood confections to know better. As Mia and Sebastian’s careers start to take off and pull them in different directions, the film goes from sugary sweet to bittersweet and the music cues shift from giddy to melancholy. It would be churlish to give away more about the movie’s third act, but even as the mood of the film dims to a darker shade, Chazelle’s ambition never wavers. If anything, the final ten minutes of La La Land are the best—and most impressively powerful—of the film.
There have been a handful of lavish, big-studio musicals in recent years. But for the most part, they’ve been bloated Broadway adaptations full of sound and fury. And some moviegoers may, no doubt, feel a little tentative about the genre. But La La Land is the anti-whatever those are. It’s more intimate and personal and affecting…more magical. My advice is to see La La Land and surrender to it. It will make you feel like you’re walking on air too. A