While watching Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a peculiar thought came to mind. “I don’t want this movie to end, ever.” A lot of films are perfectly fine at escapism. We look at the pretty lights and colors, stand up when the credits roll, hang in the aisle when the after credits scene comes on, and then go back to our cars largely unchanged. As such, it feels all the more special when a movie not only helps us escape but provides a place that is almost impossible to come back from. Covered head to toe in blissful reverence for the Hollywood musicals of old, and seasoned with a sharp awareness of modern romance, every frame of La La Land is a labor of love for its audience.
After one of the most spectacular opening musical numbers ever put on film, we’re thrown into a tale of two dreamers. Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) is a barista at a studio backlot coffee shop with aspirations of acting and playwriting. Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) is a classical jazz pianist with a chip on his shoulder and overdue rent checks in his mailbox. After a series of chance encounters, these two starving artists find themselves enraptured in one another. The question is, can both of them chase their wildly ambitious goals while keeping a healthy relationship together.
Gosling and Stone have charmed our pants off before, but here they’re given a vehicle for an iconic Hollywood romance. Their chemistry explodes off the screen, striking a perfect balance between adorable and authentic. Sebastian and Mia aren’t an exaggerated movie couple going through the motions of a larger than life story. They feel like real people who just so happen to be caught up in a massive spectacle that tells their story. Gosling, who learned all of the complex piano parts played in the film, brings a cutting cynicism to Sebastian. However, the guy never becomes obnoxious. He’s arrogant, sure, but there’s something so inherently charming about his passion for jazz. Stone is an absolute force of nature here, showing the most range out of any role she’s taken on. We can’t help but fall in love with Mia’s drive to succeed, and Stone infuses her with so much earnestness and vulnerability that her successes and failures both hit hard.
Using these two wonderful performers to full effect, writer/director Chazelle emerges as the star of the show. The electric stylistic energy he brought to Whiplash certainly was no fluke. Conducting the music with his constantly moving camera, Chazelle infuses every number with a massive sense of scale. Long stretches go by without a single cut, even as his lens occasionally does more twirling than his dancers. He’s not content to just have his audience watch these songs, he wants us in on the action, practically singing and dancing along with the actors. These are numbers crafted from the ground up for film, not awkwardly transposed from the stage, and it shows. The skillful execution isn’t just left to the set pieces, though, as there is a palpable intimacy and maturity brought to the smaller moments. His screenplay deftly navigates between enchanting courtship and crushing anguish, all while injecting a great deal of humor into the proceedings. There are a couple mild pacing slumps in the second act, but when the film hits its heart-wrenching crescendo in its final moments, all is forgiven.
As for the songs themselves, Justin Hurwitz has crafted an endlessly listenable group of tunes. They all hover under the show tunes umbrella, but the lyricism is so dynamic that it doesn’t come off as overly theatrical. His jazzy score is also a highlight, adding an extra layer of beauty to the film’s quieter moments. It brings us into a Los Angeles that we certainly know but is more akin to the one advertised to us; elegant, culturally rich and full of possibility.
At the outset, it would be easy to write La La Land off as a diet soda tribute to the song and dance extravaganzas that helped mold the studio system. However, Chazelle has made a film so astonishingly delightful that it manages to join the ranks of those classic predecessors. In many ways, this is the millennial Singin’ In The Rain, a delicious slice of chocolate cake served in a cafe with amazing live music. It also may be the date movie of the decade. There may be films this year with more important things to say, but none of those will leave you with as wide and dumb a smile as this one. To the ones who dream of great cinema, here’s to you.