It might be a little early in Damien Chazelle’s filmmaking career to call the movie his magnum opus, but “La La Land” has all the signifiers of a modern classic. This reviewer is not easily taken by the movie-musical—in fact, it’s usually the opposite—but I’ve seen it twice now and it only seems to be getting better. With “Whiplash” under his belt (one of last year’s best films), drummer-turned-director Chazelle and editor Tom Cross took a year to trim his passion project to near perfection. A mesmerizing, surreal L.A. love story, this is the third pairing of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and it’s as if their on-screen chemistry has been building to this all along.
The duet “City of Stars” and Stone’s solo “Audition” highlight the soundtrack of “La La Land”, a story about a barista/aspiring actress (Stone) and starving jazz pianist (Gosling) bent on opening his own club. They first make eye contact during gridlock/road rage on the freeway, which DP Linus Sandgren and Production Designer David Wasco use for the immersive opening sequence “Another Day in the Sun” (a bit “Rent”-esque for my taste, but the choreography is mind-blowing).
The rest of the movie focuses on the central characters; Chazelle’s colorful, quasi-Los Angeles is the stage for this present-day romance. But their meeting is elusive, as they literally bump into each other when Gosling’s Sebastian storms out of a dinner club; he’s just been fired by manager (mandatory J.K. Simmons) for straying from the establishment’s painfully dull Christmas song-only protocol. Meanwhile, Stone’s Mia gets a harsh dose of Hollywood when a casting director answers her cell phone mid-audition.
When the sparks finally do fly, “La La Land” breaks into dance routines that are every bit as elegant and whimsical as the Gene Kelly-era classics that inspired them. And something unusual happened during this time of year. I found myself uplifted—ethereal but not too far off the ground (with one notable exception), the film is a burst of fresh air in a season of serious fare. What else can I say? This is certainly an experience. Gosling and Stone can sing and dance, and the film’s retro-aesthetic, captured by Sandgren in bona fide Cinemascope, whisks us off to the titular fairytale setting of big dreams. Yet, Sebastian and Mia face modern-day problems, reminding us that “La La Land” is really a state of mind.
Opens Friday, December 16th