For the youth market, whose patience with song and dance is usually limited to short-form videos about getting into formation with Beyoncé, an old-school, feature-length musical is predicted to be a tough sell. I wouldn’t be so sure. Brilliantly written and directed by 31-year-old Damien Chazelle (the dude who did Whiplash), La La Land does nothing less than jolt the movie musical to life for the 21st century. There’s not an ounce of Broadway fat on this love story that raises its voice and moves its feet because it has to – because its the best and maybe the only way to speak its heart. You leave exhilarated by Chazelle’s nonstop inventiveness, dazzled by the performances of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as star-crossed lovers wary of happy endings, and thrilled that they figured out how to make movies magic again. There are more momentous films this year, films geared to test our conscience (Fences, Silence, The Birth of a Nation) or lunge at our hearts (Manchester By the Sea, Moonlight, Loving). But what makes La La Land such a hot miracle is how the passion for cinema and its possibilities radiates from every frame.
In blunt description, this present-day Hollywood tale doesn’t seem revolutionary. Just wait. Stone plays Mia Dolan, an actress doing the barista thing at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros lot while waiting to be discovered so she can write and star in the kind of non-comic-book entertainments nobody makes any more. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian Wilder, a jazz man doing the piano bar thing while waiting for jazz to come back so he can open a club and play the music he wants to play. These impatient throwbacks meet on a clogged L.A. freeway, flipping each other the bird as their cars pass in the snarled morning traffic.
A word about this opening scene, so smashing that it’s headed for the cinematic time capsule: Horns blast. Agitated drivers sweat and swear. Chazelle’s camera catches a typical L.A. hellscape. Then the chaos stops. People get out of their cars and start moving to the beat of a tune called “Another Day of Sun.” The glorious songs and score are by Chazelle’s Harvard classmate Justin Hurwitz with to-die-for lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (repped on Broadway now by the wonderous Dear Evan Hansen). The filmmaker shot the number on a closed off E-ZPass ramp connecting the freeway to downtown LA. More than 100 dancers participated; noted choreographer Mandy Moore provided the inspired moves. It took two days to shoot this euphoric screen moment that will be studied and swooned over for years to come.
As Mia and Sebastian get past their hostilities and into frisky flirting, La La Land moves all around its titular town. Mia hears Sebastian sing the jazzy, meltingly lovely “City of Stars,” a tune of his own composing that should have the Best Song Oscar in its pocket. In the Hollywood Hills, the two sway in time (“A Lovely Night”), taking their first steps toward something deeper. Sex is easy; it’s love that’s hard. Sharing a bond with the past, the two hit a revival house to see James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause; they then head off to Griffith Observatory, featured in Rebel, to literally dance off into the stars. Shot with a poet’s eye by the great Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle), the film achieves a shimmering, soaring beauty.
The bottom falls out when reality intervenes. Mia endures frustrating auditions in which casting directors yawn and punch their smartphones. Sebastian goes commercial by touring with a successful pop-jazz band, fronted by Keith (played with no-bull honesty by John Legend). As Mia and Sebastian grow apart, Chazelle moves from the buoyant cheer of vintage Hollywood musicals (Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon) to the bittersweet refrains of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Tellingly, the young director absorbs these influences without compromising his own identity.
Stone and Gosling are all kinds of terrific. Though hardly born to the musical genre like, say, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, these intuitive actors make Mia and Sebastian’s yearning for lyrical expression wonderfully alive and touching. They just crush it. Gosling’s acting in films as diverse as The Notebook, Lars and the Real Girl, Blue Valentine and Drive, always made me think he could do anything; now I’m convinced of it. And Stone is incandescent: Instinctively understanding she’s found the role of her career, she gives it all she’s got and makes it seem effortless. Her final number, “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” is a plaintive showstopper. The Academy damn well better crown Stone, Gosling, Chazelle and their glorious movie with Oscar love. The sheer perfection of La La Land deserves nothing less. It sweeps you away on waves of humor, heartbreak and ravishing romance. It’s the movie of the year.