Every once in a while, you come out of a movie theater feeling like you’re walking on air. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it restores your faith in the power of cinema. Damien Chazelle’s dreamy neo-retro musical La La Land is one of those rare films. It’s stunningly ambitious and thrillingly alive the way the best movies are. With just his third feature, it’s safe to say that Chazelle is a major American filmmaker. With 2014’s Whiplash, the sado-masochistic teacher-pupil drama, the writer-director seemed to arrive on the Sundance scene fully-formed as an ace storyteller, turning a milieu that few moviegoer’s probably thought they could care about (jazz) into a tense and toxic viper’s nest of artistic ambition and sacrifice. But with La La Land, Chazelle also displays a mature sense of style and emotional depth far beyond his years. At 31, he’s precocious and confident enough to tackle a mothballed genre long thought to be corny, old-fashioned, and way past the point of resuscitation.
An unapologetic love letter to the color-crazy song-and-dance fantasias of Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and classic Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, La La Land stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as two young artists struggling to achieve their dreams in contemporary Los Angeles. Stone plays Mia, a sunny, wannabe actress who barely gets by as a barista at a coffee shop on the lot of a Hollywood studio. Every day she takes a latte order from some undeserving ingénue (in other words, not her) and is a day closer to giving up. She’s inside the Dream Factory, but it remains just out of reach. Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist whose traditional taste in music and stubborn idealism put him at odds with the century he finds himself in. He’d rather make it his way (alone with his vinyl collection) or not make it at all.
The film opens with a bravura five-minute sequence on an L.A. freeway as cars are stuck in gridlock traffic—a prosaic enough daily frustration that Angelinos know all too well (and a wink, perhaps, to 8 ½ and Nashville). But Chazelle turns the cacophony of honking horns, tinny radio music, and cell phone chatter into something unexpectedly lyrical and poetic. One passenger in a yellow polka-dot dress begins to sing an upbeat ode to California, then gets out of her car and breaks into dance. Before you know it, all of the other passengers in the cars around her are joining her until the 105 turns into an explosion of pure sun-kissed joy. All of these people trapped in their own private compartments of annoyance joining together in one synchronized leaping, singing communion. It’s a hell of an opening gambit. But it tells the audience right off the bat what to expect—two hours of blissful shoot-the-works exhuberance.