After Whiplash whipped up a frenzy, writer/director Damien Chazelle could do damn near anything he wanted. Helm a superhero movie? Probably could have done that. Tackle a big-budget summer blockbuster or weighty Oscar-bait drama? So many others have followed that path. But what does he do? He makes La La Land, a full-on throwback musical. And he absolutely kills it.
Pairing a filmmaker with maybe the best sense of cinematic rhythm working today with elaborate choreography, old Hollywood style musical arrangements, and two of the industry’s most charming performers—Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling—is a stroke of pure, enchanting genius. I seriously didn’t stop smiling the whole damn time.
Bouncy, up-tempo jazz cuts mesh with maudlin ballads of love, loss, and longing. Intricately staged dance numbers glide from one scene to the next. Highly stylized sets mingle with realistic locations. It’s breathless and romantic and sheer, overabundant joy.
La La Land kicks off in style, with an epic song-and-dance routine on a traffic-packed Los Angeles freeway, unspooling in one continuous take. Or at least the illusion of a single shot—Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle) hide cuts like Birdman, Rope, and other similar aesthetic endeavors.
The subsequent story follows the whirlwind romance between aspiring actress, Mia (Emma Stone), and passionate jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), broken down into chapters by season. Chazelle lifts the predictable plot straight from any number of films, but the overwhelming charm, surrounding bliss, and extravagant staging elevate it above schmaltzy inspirations.
La La Land is admittedly light and fluffy—even when the relationship hits rough patches, they’re easily anticipated rough patches, and Sebastian screws up the way the romantic male lead always screws up. But while it follows a definite pattern, it never unfolds exactly as expected. Chazelle plays with continuity, themes of fantasy versus reality, and enough other elements to keep things from ever getting too stale and familiar, lampooning the film and music industries at every opportunity. Thus far into his career, he’s never taken the easily anticipated path, and I can’t wait to see where he goes next.
Mia and Sebastian are anachronisms. Set in the modern day, they stand out as nods to a bygone era. Mia adores old Hollywood and Sebastian is an ardent purist, and both romanticize the past at the expense of the present. Even their appearance and style of dress sets them apart. Sebastian is all sharp suits and swagger lifted from a smoke-filled 1920s jazz club, while Mia exudes an aura of glamour and grace.
Watching Stone and Gosling flirt and soft-shoe and even soar through the night sky, is pure movie magic. To be fair, I’d watch them sit on a couch and watch another movie, that’s how much chemistry and charisma they have (this actually happens in the film). And while Gosling is fantastic as the single-minded, hard-headed stickler for authenticity, Stone hijacks every frame. Watching her play an actress playing a role in an audition as casting agents text and talk and order sandwiches is phenomenal, and her minor facial movements and subtle affectations offer a master class in craft.
Every situation in La La Land is achingly romantic. It’s always near sunset. The lighting is always perfect. And the ideal song always waits just a moment away. It may be contrived and inconsequential, but La La Land is a mesmerizing, wistful, dreamy delight. [Grade: A]