Great musicals of the past represent the ultimate Hollywood realization – flights of fancy as works of art that don’t seem to have a place in these cynical modern times. It’s a rare thing when studios back a full blown, star-studded song-and-dance show, and when they do, it’s usually big screen versions of popular Broadway shows, or remakes that only succeed in variable degrees (see: ‘Hairspray’, ‘The Producers’, ‘Chicago’). ‘La La Land,’ Damien Chazelle’s singular vision of big dreams, sweet romance, and compromise vs. sacrifice, all on a fantastical Los Angeles backdrop, accomplishes the impossible – it’s a modern day classic that unabashedly nods to the nostalgia of past musical triumphs, yet is firmly steeped in the NOW.
Right from its’ rambunctious opening song-and-dance number set on a typical traffic-jammed LA freeway, ‘La La Land’ makes no bones about what it is – a candy-colored fantasy of hopes and dreams in the land of the sun. It’s off-putting at first to sit in a crowded theater designed for today’s bombastic action spectaculars and view a barrage of talented singers and dancers getting out of their cars, belting out at the top of their lungs about the beckoning opportunity of the west coast. When the activity dies down and follows the path of young acting ingenue Mia (an initially wide-eyed Emma Stone), the film threatens to be yet another congratulatory, ingratiating story about how great and special Hollywood is, but twenty minutes in, even the most cynical will have a hard time resisting the movie’s charms.
It’s obvious that this is the film that Damien Chazelle has had on his mind for some time. Breaking out with ‘Whiplash’ a few years ago, another film that takes a familiar framework into challenging territory, it was clear that his was a talent to watch. One can imagine that once he gained notoriety and acclaim for his vision, the young writer/director was able to secure support for this next, much more ambitious, project. Everything seems to have fallen in place, lining up young, talented, dedicated actors in Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, as well as an amazing crew to design sets and costumes that invoke an idyllic sense of fairytale LA and really pop on screen. The chemistry between the leads is as palpable as it was in their previous LA-set collaboration, 2011’s ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love,’ making their initial, combative run-ins a fun experience despite the inevitability of them falling in love. Strangely enough, Stone and Gosling aren’t the greatest singers and dancers to grace the silver screen, but their very serviceable talent, faults and all, seem to make them all the more endearing. By the time it wraps up with an incredible extended coda sequence that represents the infinite possibilities of choice and the trappings of traditional narrative driven by destiny, ‘La La Land’ actually becomes a transcendent story about show business allure, representing the very human desires for personal success and the timeless pursuit of romantic love . . .
Written & Directed By: Damien Chazelle
Running Time: 128 min.
* * * * (out of 4 stars) -OR- A