After closing out Whiplash, with that exhausting, monumentally exciting drum solo, it was hard to imagine how Damien Chazelle’s follow up film could possible reclaim that same energy that made Whiplash such a revelation. Incredibly, what he does with La La Land is not just harness that same lightning in a bottle power, but actually come storming out of the gates at the same pitch that Whiplash ended on. A magnificently choreographed number involving dozens of people dancing and singing their way around a gridlocked LA freeway, it’s an unbelievable achievement, and sets out Chazelle’s intent to gift us with a true masterpiece of a musical.
Opening on a song about the magnetic pull of LA for young artists, La La Land makes it clear from the off that this is a sincere love letter to the city. It’s a place with a vibrant cultural heritage, where dreams are made and broken and lost-ish souls can come together. In this case, it’s aspiring actor Mia (Emma Stone) and talented jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling), neither of whom find immediate success in California, but after a series of run-ins, find that they delight in one another’s company enough to make sticking around worthwhile.
Their love blossoms through catchy songs with great choreography (both Stone and Gosling are better dancers than they are singers), as well as more conventional scenes of sharply written and wonderfully acted dialogue. Gosling is on the same tremendous form here as he was earlier this year in The Nice Guys, his physicality and comic delivery making him a joy to watch. Stone is utterly incredible; this is perhaps a career best for her, and Chazelle knows exactly how lucky he is to have her. Lingering close-ups showcase the subtle enormity of her emotional range in any given scene, and her proven chemistry with Gosling lend their scenes together a natural, lived-in feel.
In contrast to these smaller, grounded scenes, Chazelle uses every trick that the medium provides him to orchestrate the musical numbers. Each musical interlude here has more in common with an animated Disney sequence than the ‘50s musicals that La La Land pays plenty of tribute to. That these moments, such as a silhouetted waltz through the Milky Way, or the reveal of a full backing band playing out of a truck, work so completely in live action is testament to Chazelle’s immense ambition and vision. Not a single number falls flat or even really falters, and the best few songs get your heart beating to their rhythm.
There’s a decent stretch towards the end of the second act that’s actually rather devoid of these songs, though music of course retains its prominence throughout, both in the score and story. As Seb finds more and more commercial success in an electronic jazz band fronted by his old rival Keith (John Legend), his frame of reference becomes detached from Mia’s, who is instead pursuing artistic satisfaction with a one-woman show that she’s having to pay to put on. It’s a smart mediation on how a change in financial status, even a positive one, can put a strain on a relationship, and as they hit their darker patches as a couple, Chazelle’s script makes sure that one of them is never any more to blame than the other.
Every shot is pretty much perfectly constructed, Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren, framing LA in the same way that Golden Age Hollywood did. The sky is always an impossibly beautiful colour at dusk, looking half-real, half-painted. It does an amazing job of suggesting a fantasia full of endless possibility and wonder, and all the doors to the various theatres and jazz clubs where Mia and Seb can let their talent shine are reminiscent of mystical portals, ready to lead you into a mysterious adventure. David Wasco’s production design is second to none for this year, just one of many awards categories where this effort is now surely the frontrunner. Though La La Land is set now, everything about the tone and atmosphere is pure 1950s (Mia and Seb even go and watch Rebel Without a Cause for their first date). Just like the fantasy of the musical sequences exist in perfect harmony with the ‘real world’ scenes, the modern and the antique seamlessly blend together.
A frank and honest look at the reality of love and relationships, magnificently acted, La La Land would function as an excellent dramatic piece even without its masterful musical numbers. As a musical, it’s absurdly, life-affirmingly brilliant, a tale of dreamers in the City of Stars that is so genuine in its love for every topic it tackles that it should inspire anyone who sees it to go out and attempt at least one purely creative act. Having proved himself as one of the world’s most exciting writer/director talents with Whiplash, Chazelle has managed to top that titanic achievement with the most ambitious and invigorating musical for decades.