Apparently, two things don’t seem to be cool or make money in today’s Hollywood: originality and musicals. In our current IMAX 3-D, superhero-centric, reboot-everything world, those qualities feel like a bittersweet memory from a golden past. Yet, somehow, an original musical with star power that feels akin to classic Hollywood has landed, and it has become this season’s most hotly anticipated film. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in their third creative collaboration, “La La Land,” from “Whiplash” writer and director Damien Chazelle, is cinematic pixie dust with toe-tapping, heart-singing magic at its fingertips.
Sebastian is a stubborn traditionalist jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own jazz club but can’t find people who share his passion. Mia is a college dropout from small-town Nevada facing constant rejection while working a survival job at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot. Star-crossed in their struggles, their blossoming relationship makes their lives more colorful while inspiring them to keep their hopes alive. But the day will come when compromises must be made between young love and lifelong dreams.
The chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, sparked in 2011’s “Crazy Stupid Love” and augmented in 2013’s “Gangster Squad,” shoots off the scales in “La La Land,” beyond measure. When they’re talking, and especially when they’re dancing, their dynamic shatters the fourth wall with pleasure. It’s an infectious love of life, a perspective that it wants to share. Individually and collectively, the performances of Gosling and Stone combine starry-eyed optimism and hard-hitting realism, saluting the beautiful dreamers out there while acknowledging their journeys’ more grueling aspects. Though on the Hollywood A-list, it becomes strikingly clear that both Gosling and Stone still remember their own hard-knock days of trying to make it in the business. For them and their director, this is a deeply personal film about purpose and pursuit. Though this is only his second film, Chazelle shows no signs of the dreaded sophomore slump, his writing coming entirely from the heart and his years of realizing such an impossible dream evident. It has quickly become his artistic brand and, here, it’s a life-saving adrenaline injection to the veins in a world trying to find some starlight in the dark night.
With old-school logos and title cards, Chazelle makes clear his intention of honoring early Hollywood musicals. The use of a Technicolor film palette, the popular coloring medium back in the classic Hollywood heyday, gives the breathtaking images the feel of a picture come to life off the page. The joyous moments come across as radiant, but so do the achingly painful ones. Editor Tom Cross keeps the more grounded beats contemporary while letting cinematographer Linus Sandgren cut loose with the musical numbers, using minutes-long unbroken takes that keep heads on a constant swivel of festivity. A paradox emerges, as reality contains elements of dreams, and what was previously confined to the world of dreams explodes into the real world. Composer Justin Hurwitz produces an emotionally diverse range of refreshingly original music, both a score and songs. He starts the show with the deliriously buoyant, traffic jam-set “Another Day of Sun,” and includes a somberly hopeful but still catchy song, “City of Stars.”
As much as dreams can drive us crazy, without them we’d have no drive. “La La Land” casts a seductive spell on the eyes and the heart, its twinkling sparkles remain on bodies, pillows and in memories the morning after.