La La Land opens with the all-too-familiar sight of bumper-to-bumper LA traffic. The opening shot is vivid, but unremarkable; it’s nothing moviegoers haven’t seen in hundreds of films before.
But when one of the commuters bursts into song and then, moments later, leaps out of her car and dances down the highway, initiating one of several expertly choreographed musical numbers, it’s clear that La La Land is far from unremarkable.
The film is both a celebration of classic Hollywood musicals, and a deconstruction of them. It is both a love letter, but also an examination of the need for classic genres — be they film or music genres — to evolve or die.
This dichotomy between the old and classic versus the new and innovative is embodied by Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling, an unemployed jazz pianist with dreams of opening his own club; his opportunity to preserve the genre against what he sees as mortal threats — such as the samba and tapas club that’s taken over one of his favorite jazz clubs.
A chance encounter leads Sebastian to meet Mia, an aspiring but unsuccessful actress, played by Emma Stone. There’s an instant spark between the two, made all the more visceral by the chemistry between Gosling and Stone, which we’ve witnessed before in the 2011 film Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Against this backdrop, and throughout the film, characters spontaneously break into song, as they do in all musicals. And yet, La La Land boasts an air of authenticity, a realistic weight, that many musicals lack. (It almost seems wrong to call it a musical, as it transcends that label. Like the dramatic comedy — the “dramedy” — perhaps La La Land can fit into its own hybrid genre: The dramatic musical, or “drusical.” But I digress.)
Obviously, some musicals deal with serious or dark subject matter — Sweeney Todd comes to mind as a prime example — but even the most serious musicals are often filled with over-the-top, fantastic flights of fancy. As a movie where Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone literally float into the air while dancing, La La Land somehow, incredibly, never feels fantastic or absurd because it’s grounded in the very real relationship between Mia and Sebastian and all that entails — for better and worse.
And if a couple dancing up into the air sounds fun, it is. This visually rich film is a feast for the eyes, filled with vibrant colors, creative camera angles and dances that are choreographed to a T. But while there are moments of pure delight in this film, I wouldn’t call it a happy movie. There is joy here, but there is also anger, and shame and sadness — and the film is so much better for it.
This is Director Damien Chazelle’s third feature film following the 2014 masterpiece Whiplash. I’m not sure La La Land quite reaches the artistic heights of Chazelle’s breakout film, but it comes pretty damned close.
And like the earlier film, La La Land builds toward an incredible climax, filled with so much exhilaration, sadness and regret — not to mention a bit of a, “What the hell am I watching?” factor — that it’s almost unfathomable that it made it onto the big screen at all.
But it did, and it’s a blessing that it did. Go see this film. You won’t regret it.