La La Land is not for the cynical. Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle’s dazzling, ambitious modern-day musical is fresh yet nostalgic, paying tribute to song-and-dance classics such as Singin’ in the Rain and Swing Time. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, pairing for the third time after Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, play a struggling actress and jazz musician who fall for each other after years of chasing their dreams in L.A. Their story is one of passion, purpose, and resolute optimism, even when the City of Angeles keeps beating them down.
After a “Presented in CinemaScope” title card that morphs from black and white into candied color, La La Land opens with the happiest traffic jam ever. The blaring horns of cars stuck on a Los Angeles freeway soon get overtaken by a musical number, with drivers and passengers for what looks like miles escaping their vehicles to cut an asphalt rug as they praise perhaps the city’s best quality in “Another Day of Sun.” When it ends, the impatient cacophony returns, with Mia (Stone) flipping off Sebastian (Gosling) when his long honk suggests she hasn’t hit her accelerator fast enough.
This is the couple’s first glimpse of each other, and though subsequent run-ins continue the antagonism—“There’s not a spark in sight,” Sebastian croons during their inaugural dance in the Hollywood Hills twilight—they might as well be shooting spitballs at each other in a playground. The pretense is dropped somewhat suddenly (a minor script quibble) when he visits her at the Warner Bros. lot coffee shop where she works and they go for a stroll, pausing now and then to watch a shoot or gaze at a setting used in Casablanca. “I love it,” Mia says wistfully after talking about why she wants to act. But, she admits, she hates jazz, which leads to Sebastian dragging her to a club to ardently explain the art behind the New Orleans-born music and why it must be saved.
Their deification of each other’s respective art forms is thus firmly established. But Chazelle counters this with their every letdown, including Sebastian being fired from his club gig for not strictly playing holiday music (no one’s ever looked more miserable tinkling the ivories to “Deck the Halls”) and a montage of Mia’s kinda-terrible auditions. Yet they constantly encourage each other, except when Sebastian compromises on his goal of opening his own club to become the keys player in a lucrative, but ever-touring band. “Do you like the music you’re playing?” Mia asks him, incredulous over what she sees as selling out.
Of course, the topics of achieving success and the compromises that often come with it are paramount here—along with self-referential conversations about nostalgia versus novelty—but La La Land’s transportive reverie is its strength. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is breathtaking, surrounding the couple with multicolored sunsets, backdrops of Picasso-like paintings and streams that twinkle, and a magical, surrealistic scene in the Griffith Park Observatory during which Mia and Sebastian float while dancing among the stars. Mary Zophres’ costumes similarly pop off the screen, with Mia frequently outfitted in jewel-toned, vintage-style dresses.
The soundtrack by Justin Hurwitz, who also composed for Whiplash, is just as key in supporting the film’s exuberant, giddy core, though Mia’s late-chapter show-stopper, the soaring “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” is more melancholic. Both Stone and Gosling are surprisingly adept musical performers, but in this transfixing scene, the range of emotions that Stone’s Mia runs through is remarkable and sets up the film’s bittersweet end.
That end, which takes place five years later, is mostly aching, but Chazelle punctuates it with a joyous mini movie about a road untraveled, with some shots that evoke 2012’s silent Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist. The closing credits revert to the CinemaScope era, noting that the film was “Made in Hollywood, USA.” At one point in La La Land, Mia is concerned that a one-woman play she’s written is too retro. “That’s the point,” Sebastian says. And when she then wonders whether people will warm to it, his response feels like Chazelle’s attitude toward all the haters out there: “Fuck ‘em.”
La La Land opens Friday at the Angelika Film Center, Landmark E Street Cinema, and Landmark Bethesda Row.