La La Land (2016)
128 min., rated PG-13.
With “La La Land,” writer-director Damien Chazelle not only revives the art of jazz again in his follow-up to 2014’s “Whiplash,” but the splashy Hollywood musical, to boot. A rhapsodic valentine to classic Hollywood and its city of lovers and dreamers, the film is bound to play on the nostalgia of viewers who miss the golden age of the MGM Technicolor movie musical, but at the same time, it is such a fresh, vibrant and endlessly entertaining revitalization with a core universality. “La La Land” dazzles and enchants as so much more than just a frothy, lighthearted homage to cinema of yore or a mere stunt, and it would be unreasonable to not get lost in the magic and glorious exuberance. It's earnest without being corny and proudly, unconditionally romantic without a hint of irony. Calling it a cinematic achievement in overwhelmingly joyful transcendence next to 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain” and 1961's "West Side Story" would not be hyperbole, either.
Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are just two artists in Los Angeles who briefly lock eyes during a busy morning commute. Hailing from Boulder City, Nevada, she is an aspiring actress, hoping to get her foot in the door as she spends her days reading for auditions and waiting for a callback, while working as a barista on the Warner Bros. studio lot. He is a jazz pianist who dreams of keeping jazz alive and opening his own club. One night-out after returning to her car to find it has been towed, Mia is lured into a supper club by Sebastian’s music on Christmas. He doesn’t really give her the time of day then, as he gets fired by the grumpy manager (J.K. Simmons) for playing an original piece he wrote instead of holiday standards. Only later will Mia and Sebastian see each other again and meet cute. They may be perfect for each other, but as they both are at the start of their careers with their own goals and ambitions—Mia decides to write a one-woman show and Sebastian joins a pop-jazz band, led by an old friend (John Legend)—maybe now isn’t the right time for love.
Pulling off a show-stopping production number right off the top with “Another Day of Sun” spectacularly staged in one take on the gridlocked overpass from the 105 freeway to the 110 during Los Angeles' sunny winter, “La La Land” gets the viewer swooning and tingling from its infectious energy and splendor. Shooting in 35mm Cinemascope, cinematographer Linus Sandgren can seemingly do anything, his camera audaciously and fluidly gliding and swooping. From there, after getting splashed with someone’s coffee and getting cut short during a promising audition, Mia is persuaded by her three roommates to go out for the night, making an eye-popping quartet in their jewel-toned dresses, sashaying down the street to the car and then arriving at a big party where everyone partakes in a poolside song and dance of “Someone in the Crowd.” It’s yet another dazzler with virtuoso showmanship that’s simply exhilarating to watch and doesn’t end there. Mia and Sebastian’s tap-dancing duet ("A Lovely Night") on a hilltop overlooking the San Fernando Valley after leaving a party is pure bliss. A walk through the Griffith Observatory and the planetarium after they catch "Rebel Without a Cause" at a local movie house is a fanciful and unabashedly romantic fantasia, while Mia's powerful "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)" showcases the character's passion and knack for storytelling. And, finally, the grand, moving closing "what-might-have-been" sequence brings it all home, being full of melancholy and dramatic weight and yet still leaving the viewer in a giddy state.
Making their third time on screen together their most adorable and meaningful after 2011’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” and 2013’s “Gangster Squad,” Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are a wonderful pair together that it would be impossible to not be completely swayed by their electric chemistry. Like a modern Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the two stars throw themselves into the singing and dancing with a “let’s-put-on-a-show” vigor and skilled choreography (thanks to “Dancing with the Stars” choreographer Mandy Moore) without feeling overly rehearsed. Individually, Stone is incandescent and a pro with comic timing, and Gosling shines, as well, balancing charm and crabbiness.
A gushing labor of love for Damien Chazelle and all involved, “La La Land” is a dreamy, lovely delight. From the color palette to the clothing to the head-to-toe long takes of the staging and an editorial style that doesn't cut every second, it is old-fashioned in the best of ways. Though it is not a full-fledged musical with wall-to-wall music, Chazelle makes one believe that cinema can be revolutionary and traditional, holding true to the musical rule that characters can still break out into song and dance, even in an L.A. traffic jam. It should be added that the original orchestrations by Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, carry such a hummable, lingering reverie, particularly "City of Stars." For a story so simple, it achieves so many remarkably big feelings, it moves like a dream, and it’s sweet for a vast majority of the time but more bittersweet and true than a rose-colored fairy tale. A special motion picture that couldn’t be altered in any way because it’s already perfect, “La La Land” is sheer nirvana for movie lovers. Audiences will be swept away, as if floating on a cloud.