Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend, J.K. Simmons, Terry Walters, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno and more
Grade: Four stars
Movie magic is still very real.
Proof of that can be found in “La La Land,” which achieves the seemingly impossible task of merging classic musicals and modern sensibilities into a transporting, wonderful, heartbreaking treasure of a film. It’s the sort of movie that hasn’t come from Hollywood in decades, yet writer/director Damien Chazelle takes that legacy and transforms it into something that feels both timeless and utterly modern.
“La La Land” lets you know you’ve entered a different world right from its first scene, which opens in a traffic jam that transforms into a joyous, multi-car musical number that even incorporates parkour. It’s the kind of thing many of us wish would happen in the middle of our morning traffic jam, or see happening in our imaginations outside our head, and there’s something wonderful and deeply satisfying about seeing it play out onscreen.
From there the movie follows two dreamers, played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, as they cross paths on their way to try and make it big in L.A. Stone is an aspiring actress, working at a coffee shop and running from frustrating audition to frustrating audition. Gosling is a jazz pianist with very particular dreams and a fear of “selling out” that keeps him from earning the cash he so desperately needs.
“La La Land” offers everything you could hope for out of a musical, from sweet songs and flirtatious dances to lush visuals that feel like dreams brought to life on the movie screen. The singing isn’t life changing, but it’s light and emotional enough that it never takes away from the spell the movie is casting over you.
The chemistry between the two is excellent, their scenes crackling with the snap and banter of some of the old-time greats but underpinned with real, tender warmth. As much as I love their banter, or their flirtatious dancing, my favorite moment was actually a quiet little grace note fairly early in their relationship that actually made me lose my breath a little. Chazelle is a romantic, and that fact radiates out of every line of this movie.
But he’s also a realist, and he knows that dreams aren’t easy things to keep alive out here in the real world. The movie deals with relationship stresses in a surprisingly realistic manner, giving them their full weight and angst while at the same time not demonizing anyone. It’s not easy to keep love alive, whether it’s love for another person or love for the dreams that make you get up in the morning, and Chazelle acknowledges this in a way that a lot of old-school musicals (and even a lot of modern movies) don’t.
The one warning I have to give (and this is a very mild spoiler alert, so if you don’t want it skip ahead to the next paragraph) is that I sobbed through the entire last 10 or 15 minutes of the movie. Not gentle, cinematic tears down my cheeks, but big, scrunch-faced ugly crying that would have gotten me kicked out of the theater if I hadn’t been doing it silently.
In a way, though, it’s just one more testament to the magic of the film. “La La Land” had my heart in its cinematic hands, and it refused to let go until well after the credits rolled.