How could I not respond to a film that opens with the words “Presented in CINEMASCOPE” and ends with the legend “Made in Hollywood U.S.A.”? Though Damien Chazelle pays tribute to the musicals of yesteryear La La Land is not about nostalgia. It’s a thoroughly contemporary endeavor that draws on the filmmaker’s love of movies past to tell its story in a way that’s fresh
When I heard that the creator of Whiplash was making a full-scale musical I expected an homage or possibly a modern piece of escapism. I didn’t anticipate an ambitious, daring piece of work about dreams realized and unfulfilled in the “City of Stars.” Its success depends on our ability to relate to its leading characters, and you couldn’t ask for two actors than Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. He plays a dedicated musician who dreams of opening his own jazz club; she is an actress who endures one humiliating audition after another, hoping to show the world what she can do.
La La Land is grounded in reality but periodically transports us into a dreamlike state in just a heartbeat. That’s no mean feat. The movie transforms the emblematic Los Angeles experience of a traffic jam into a spectacular production number…and that’s just the opening.
Working with cinematographer Linus Sandgren and noted production designer David Wasco, Chazelle filmed the entire picture on well-chosen L.A. locations, but added a touch of unreality to every shot. That sets the stage for the more fanciful moments where reality is left behind. Justin Hurwitz’s jazzy music, with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, suits the movie to a T, as does the choreography by Mandy Moore and Mary Zophre’s colorful costumes.
As for the stars, they aren’t trying to be a reincarnation of the impossibly perfect Fred and Ginger; they’re more like the guy and girl next door who express themselves every now and then through music and dance.
I wish the story didn’t take quite so long to tell; the midsection, when Gosling and Stone’s relationship gets bumpy, is longer than it ought to be. But the film redeems itself with a climactic song from Stone that brought a lump to my throat, and a finale that’s cinematically and emotionally dazzling.
La La Land is clearly a labor of love for all concerned and one of the year’s most distinctive and poignant movies. Erase your preconceived ideas about musicals and take this one on its own terms. That’s what it deserves, because La La Land is a true original.