“La La Land” opens with an energetic, one-take musical number set on a crowded Los Angeles freeway, with singers and dancers leaping in and around bumper-to-bumper traffic in perfect choreographed harmony. It’s a dramatic entrance, but it’s actually a little deceptive.
Spectacle may entertain us, but it’s story that truly moves us. Because as fun as that opening scene may be, the story that follows is what makes “La La Land” a great movie.
The razzle-dazzle opening quickly shifts to a comparatively simple story about two dreamers trying to make it big in Hollywood. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress, serving coffee to the stars while she trucks from failed audition to failed audition. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz piano purist who aspires to open his own club, but succumbs to the milquetoast playlist of the moment, whether it’s sleepwalking through Christmas numbers at a busy local restaurant or playing keyboards with an ’80s cover band at a pool party.
Sebastian and Mia hate each other initially, but they gradually warm up with each subsequent encounter, until their relationship becomes both the engine that drives their passions and the roadblock that can bring them screeching to a halt.
Director Damien Chazelle, who also directed 2014’s “Whiplash,” skillfully takes us through the ups and downs of Sebastian and Mia’s romantic relationship and their idealized professional pursuits. At one point, Sebastian decides to sacrifice his principles to make some much-needed money playing with a hip-hop infused jazz combo (led by his sort-of friend Keith, played by John Legend). Elsewhere, Mia finally abandons her coffee shop job to develop her own one-woman show. All along the way, these exploits are punctuated by musical numbers that feel organic, natural and far from obligatory.
“La La Land” can boast a list of accomplishments, and should get plenty of attention through the awards season (and not just because it’s another movie about making movies, though that will undoubtedly help). But its most interesting accomplishment might be the way Chazelle successfully blends a classic musical style with his contemporary Hollywood setting.
Sebastian and Mia sing and dance as if they’re in a picture from Hollywood’s golden era, yet we see them mingling among the shallow beautiful people at tacky pool parties, trying out for terrible schlock roles, and playing with their cellphones.
This blend works largely because of how good the writing is and how well Stone and Gosling execute their characters. In a movie that will sell itself on song and dance numbers, often it’s the quiet conversations that allow the stars to shine, such as a doozy over a rare dinner together in their apartment.
And yet, there’s no denying the power of Chazelle’s spectacle, which employs music and visuals to create a powerful emotional connection. On its surface, “La La Land” feels like a love letter to anyone who mortgaged the farm to head to LA and become a star, but its themes of dreams and disappointment will resonate far beyond the acting guild.
This wash of style and story comes together in a final 15 minutes that almost singlehandedly takes “La La Land” from good to great all on its own. Chazelle’s film is a tribute to dreamers of all varieties, and its finale is one of the most compelling cinematic statements on the relationship between dreams and reality to hit the screen in recent memory.
“La La Land” is rated PG-13 for some language; running time: 128 minutes.