Bursting with chutzpah and a near relentless drive to leave you breathless, La La Land is something special. With artfully uplifting highs and bold cinematic gestures, it’s as audacious as anything at the movies in recent memory. Director Damien Chazelle has created a musical that exists with one foot in the real world and the one in the stylized, swaying its body back and forth between the two to divine effect. Its musical numbers are like if those late-90s Gap commercials also thrived on thematic context and narrative perspective – the smile on your face may be stupid, but the film isn’t.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star as showbiz dreamers and Los Angeles transplants that fall in love before becoming disillusioned with both. As their career compromises don’t match the ideal, the honeymoon of young love naturally also becomes strained. For all of the film’s exclamation point positivity, it does exist in a world that tells us we can have love or career, but getting neither is even more likely. For La La Land, optimism can be both naive and necessary sustaining force.
La La Land captures what dreams look like, what romance feels like. It is optimism as a state of being, a disposition flying in the face of cynicism and even the tough truths we avoid. The escapism of the film’s lush musical sequences is a daydream writ large, the uncomplicated fantasy in our mind of desire achieved and passion fulfilled. With Mary Zophres primary color costumes and cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s soaring visuals, it’s easy to become intoxicated. Justin Hurwitz’s score soars, with an instantly memorable love theme – remember those? – that the film uses to a full emotional range.
When the film faces the harsher realities of wavering hope and making a relationship work, the film loses much of that buoyant energy – and that’s precisely the point.Even this downshift in energy is one of its many risks, but one that doesn’t work nearly as well as its grander flourishes. But the lag is due less to the lower key than it is that the ideas and approach of the second act are more common. You’ve definitely seen its narrow definition of selling out and giving up many times over.
The film is also lucky enough to have two leads with the natural, witty chemistry of Gosling and Stone. Where the screenplay doesn’t provide much insight into what draws their Mia and Sebastien together, they lend a specificity to the more vaguely drawn relationship. As Sebastien, Gosling is the Gosling persona in its best iteration, all charming pseduo-modest charisma and matinee idol sweetheart. Chazelle’s screenplay is curiously more interested in his beats, allowing more nuance for Sebastien while Stone is tasked with selling more sharply divergent beats. Stone, with a refreshing undercurrent of anger, meets these sharp turns with solid emotional honesty – even if her big moment can only satisfy so much with her mechanical arc.
This all leads to a creative leap of a showstopping, heartbursting finale that you dare not allow anyone to spoil for its unexpected resolution. Chazelle is smart to allow as much reflection and thought into the landing as much as in the soaring, more obviously theme-embodying beginning. The sequence is all elements of the film at their peak, finally finding the right blend of bittersweet melancholy, fantastical escape, and real world heart.
La La Land makes up for its weaker character elements with its Technicolor Panavision boldness. Chazelle succeeds at delivering a visual experience that captures your heart, allowing you to supplant your own regrets and hopes into its sublime joy. It may be easy for some to reduce La La Land to simple showmanship and homage, but there’s more emotional ideas underneath its vibrant surface than that.