The breezy opening sequence in La La Land definitely sets the tone — an elaborate musical number, set on a freeway ramp in a sun-drenched Los Angeles traffic jam, filmed in a single take with dozens of performers in perfectly choreographed rhythm.
Among them are the two protagonists who will eventually anchor this delightful and visually spectacular romance from director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) that provides a fresh and contemporary take on a timeless formula.
Specifically, it follows two dreamers on the fringes of Hollywood fame who fall in love. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz musician who compromises his creativity to pay the bills in nightclubs and at wedding receptions. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who works as a barista between auditions.
Both are experienced in the elusiveness of fame and fortune, which is part of what draws them together at a party. But during the year that follows, their art threatens to tear them apart. Mia decides to write a passion project for the stage, while Sebastian is away touring with an eclectic band leader (John Legend), prompting Mia to call him a sellout. For both, their dedication perhaps reflects a spiritual kinship with Chazelle himself.
The film affectionately captures its Hollywood setting not only for what it is, but for what it represents. One highlight is a sequence set at the iconic Griffith Observatory, where Sebastian and Mia share an intimate moment and reminisce about Rebel Without a Cause — accompanied not by dialogue, but only a smooth jazzy score. Asks Mia: “It feels nostalgic. Is it too nostalgic?”
Depth comes in the exploration of the convergence between art and commerce as it relates to finding a breakthrough in show business. But the film never turns pretentious or heavy-handed, for which Gosling and Stone deserve significant credit, and it manages some poignancy along the way.
Even cynics who might roll their eyes at the wish-fulfillment aspects of Chazelle’s screenplay can admire the dazzling technical achievement. Credit the filmmaker for having the courage to follow through on his convictions, however hokey and old-fashioned they might be.
La La Land has an amusing throwback vibe, which is appropriate because of its resemblance to the sort of escapist musical entertainment that used to be a Hollywood staple. Heartfelt and ambitious, it won’t make you think, but it will put a smile on your face.