Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” wasn’t just my favorite film of 2014 – in my estimation, it’s one of the best movies of the past decade. So it goes without saying that the bar was set pretty high for his latest project, a loving homage to the big, bold and colorful musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age featuring two of today’s brightest stars. Making a musical these days is already a huge risk, but the fact that “La La Land” is a completely original piece of work rather than an adaptation of preexisting material is what makes it truly daring. The film’s ambition is evident from the very first frame, launching into an elaborate song-and-dance number set during a gridlock on the Los Angeles freeway that announces itself in grand fashion. Though it falls just short of matching that ambition (perhaps due to a tiny bit of overhype), “La La Land” is still one of the most dazzling, effervescent moviegoing experiences of the year.
The film tells the love story of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and struggling jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) over the course of four seasons. When the two artists first meet, it’s not cute like in the movies but rather a curt interaction during the opening traffic jam that begins with a loud honk and ends with a middle finger. The pair crosses paths later that night when Mia wanders into a Hollywood restaurant where Sebastian has just been fired by his boss (J.K. Simmons in a fun cameo) for failing to play the agreed-upon setlist of holiday jingles, and again, their encounter is less than friendly. As fate would have it, Mia and Sebastian run into each other at a house party several months later, and this time around, the sparks finally fly. But as their romance blossoms through the summer, they’re forced to reassess their careers, leading both of them to wonder whether being together means that they must give up on their dreams.
“La La Land” isn’t the most original story – it borrows from all the classics, like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “An American in Paris” and “A Star is Born” – but while the film treads very familiar ground, Chazelle freshens it up with some delightful song-and-dance numbers that attempt to redefine the movie musical, including one where the two lovers literally dance among the stars that toes the line between fantasy and reality. Stone and Gosling fare better in the Gene Kelly-inspired dance sequences than any of the songs (save for “Audition,” which will likely net Stone an Oscar nomination on its strength alone), although that hardly matters, because the movie glides by on their irresistible charm and chemistry. Both actors have playful, down-to-earth personalities that make them extremely likeable, as well as an old-school glamour that feeds into the film’s nostalgic spirit.
For a movie about chasing your dreams in a town known for crushing them, “La La Land” is surprisingly optimistic up until its bittersweet end. (Between “Whiplash” and this film, Chazelle has proven that he knows how to stick a landing.) The problem is that some parts of the movie aren’t as deftly handled, especially in the middle act as it struggles to exist both as a small, intimate romance and a big, glitzy musical. There are moments when Chazelle navigates between the two wonderfully, but there are other times when they seem to be actively working against each other. Nevertheless, there’s so much to like about “La La Land” that its flaws aren’t as worrisome as they otherwise might be. It’s a clichéd statement, but they really don’t make movies like this anymore, and while there’s probably a reason for that, it’s nice to see someone like Chazelle who, much like Sebastian’s crusade to save jazz, is fighting to keep them alive.