In the summer of 2015, writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) absconded with Oscar nominees Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling for a few weeks to film a song-and-dance film in the heat of L.A. Audiences finally got a glimpse of this secret project in July of 2016, but were denied real details as the teaser featured nothing more than a piano riff, some lyrics, and out of context images. With the hype growing, audiences and critics began to wonder if La La Land, Chazelle’s second feature film, would live up to it. Gratefully, La La Land delivers the goods as an enchanting tale of two people in pursuit of their dreams that is packaged as a throwback to the heyday of musical cinema but with a modern twist.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress whose dreams of stardom grow dimmer with each passing year. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a dedicated pianist whose resolute conviction on the importance of jazz gets him fired from gigs faster than Count Basie can play scales across the 88 keys. Stuck in similar ruts, Mia and Sebastian provide each other shelter from their disappointments, while simultaneously reinvigorating their creative drive.
From the jump, Chazelle makes it clear where the inspiration for La La Land originates. Showcasing vibrant colors, infectious songs, elegant choreography, and precise cinematography – each scene harkens back to the golden age of cinema when classics like Singin’ In The Rain and West Side Story reigned in theaters; when dapper gents and fashionable dames breaking out into song and dance seemed less like fantasy and more second nature. However, unlike those glorified musicals, La La Land is heavily grounded in reality – forgoing elaborate sets for real streets, freeways, and boardwalks. Though each scene’s presentation is akin to a playhouse musical, even going so far as to use long, single-track shots to capture to “natural spontaneity” of the song-and-dance numbers, the sets are undeniably real. This creates an illusion of grounding, which only enhances the romantic elements of the narrative, especially when scenes become more fantastical.
As beautiful as the sets look, Stone and Gosling are the ones who bring this film to life. On their third outing together, they remain charming as hell, their on-screen chemistry crackling off the screen, and their performances effortless. Whether being deeply sincere or ridiculously silly, their presentations of Mia and Sebastian are never unrealistic. There’s a moment for Gosling that stands out beautifully and it’s a small one – Mia is on the phone with her mother, Sebastian listening from their shared bedroom and you can see, through the changes in his face, how he processes the conversation. Without a word, Gosling conveys an entire scene’s worth of dialogue to explain what he does in the next scene. Stone, no slouch herself, gives a performance that highlights her versatility and talent. A highlight comes in an audition – apparently inspired by a real life event that happened to Gosling – during which, while deep in an emotional delivery, she is rudely interrupted. In that moment, her humiliation, while still trying to stay professional and in the moment – is heart-wrenching.
Boosting the performances is the soulful music of Justin Hurwitz. His music, particularly Mia and Sebastian’s theme City of Stars, serves as the underlying narrative thread throughout all of La La Land. Each song has a natural, seamless transition in and out of dialogue, always adding to the story in some way. The poppy tune Another Day of Sun opens the film, featuring motorists stuck on the I-9 breaking out into song, extolling the virtue of leaving home with nothing in their pockets to chase their dreams in L.A. Later, the soulful Audition (The Fools Who Dream) grants an inside look into Mia’s dramatic inspiration. Impressively, while none of the songs are likely to gain radio play, each of them possess such emotional impact that audiences will find the music sticking with them long after they leave the theater.
From the top down, La La Land is a beautiful story of love and sacrifice in the pursuit of achieving your dreams. It reminds audiences that sometimes the happy ending only comes from pursuing the dream and that in the chase, we learn who we are, what we love, and, maybe, find happiness at the end. As Mia sings, “a bit of madness is key to give us new colors to see. Who knows where it will lead us, and that’s why they need us.” And that’s why La La Land delivers.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.