Damien Chazelle’s La La Land announces its intentions—and owns its ambitions—from the start, with a doozy of a long take that tilts down from a clear blue sky to a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway. The camera moves along a row of stopped cars, then pauses to watch as one young woman, singing to herself in the driver’s seat, suddenly hops out to dance. Within moments a few other drivers have joined her, and soon the overpass has turned into an impromptu stage for dozens of show-biz hopefuls clad in bright primary colors, acrobatically leaping off car hoods and parkour-ing over medians while they sing their love for their eternally sunny adopted city. As the number builds and the true scale of the sequence is gradually revealed, cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camera, never seeming to cut away (though there had to have been a few digital tricks in there), swoops around and into and through the action, as if playfully daring the audience to follow it into the shared fantasy that is the movie musical. People are going to be randomly bursting into song in public around here, this boffo opener promises … or warns: If that’s not your thing, then get out, via backflip if possible, at the next off-ramp.
There may not be another moment in the rest of La La Land that rivals that opening number for sheer cinematic chutzpah, though the movie to follow is full of smaller surprises and delights. With that intricate first sequence—filmed, like the rest of the movie, in the long-dormant widescreen ratio known as CinemaScope—Chazelle declares himself both an admirer of the old and a bringer of the new. La La Land is in many ways a film about nostalgia. Its heroine sleeps in a bedroom under an outsize poster of Ingrid Bergman; its hero idolizes jazz greats such as Thelonious Monk and Hoagy Carmichael; and its final song, a showstopper to match the first, is a wistful ballad about the inevitability of disappointment and heartbreak that strikes an emotional chord reminiscent of the great sung-through musicals of Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). But for all its borrowing and bricolage, La La Land never feels like a backward-looking or unoriginal work. Even when not every one of its risks pays off the way that first song does, this movie is bold, vital, funny, and alive.
Two of the aspiring artists stuck in that traffic jam (their screwball-worthy first meeting consists of a honked horn and a flipped bird) continue to run into each other over the next few weeks around town. Mia (Emma Stone) is a would-be actress who works in a café on the Warner Bros. lot, serving coffee to the fellow ingénues whose roles she covets. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz-mad pianist who’s fired from his regular gig at a restaurant (by J.K. Simmons, the Oscar-winning co-star of Chazelle’s previous, even more jazz-centric film Whiplash) when he refuses to limit his playlist to treacly Christmas tunes. Mia and Sebastian are both independent-minded, stubborn strivers whose idealism about their art is in more or less direct conflict with their desire to succeed at it, and after a few more rocky encounters—one of which ends in a tentative soft-shoe à deux, as if their feet know what’s happening before their hearts do—they begin to fall in love.
There’s much to be said about the trend of repurposing Hollywood stars for singing and dancing parts when New York is filled with countless struggling musical-theater performers who could bring a far more robust set of skills to the task. But even if Gosling and Stone are more sweet than sensational to watch when they launch into a tap routine or a duet at the keyboard, there’s a gameness and modesty to their song-and-dance stylings that suits the movie’s diffident modern-day setting. And as actors skilled at deploying their own charm, both Stone and Gosling pull off the most important and difficult task a musical requires of its performers: convincing the audience that their characters want, nay, need to sing just those words and dance just those steps, that sheer excess of feeling (longing, love, sorrow) led them to make it all up on the spot.
It’s not really fair to say that the first half of La La Land goes by faster than the second, because the same could be said of any love affair. The pace slackens and saddens a bit in the movie’s second-to-last chapter, “Fall.” (In a running joke, title cards mark the change of seasons as the sun shines obliviously on.) Mia quits her job to write her own one-woman show. Sebastian takes a better-paid job touring with a cheesy jazz-rock band whose bandleader is played by real-life R&B star John Legend. The choice between staying true to one’s ideals and “selling out”—a subject the lead couple squabbles about over dinner—is up for real debate in La La Land, which for all its stylized romanticism devotes as much attention to its characters’ career goals as to their relationship. In one scene Legend’s Keith, an unabashed crowd-pleaser who enjoys the band’s success, calls bullshit on Sebastian’s antiquarian jazz-nerd purism, reminding him that for a dying art form to survive it needs to look to the future. The case he makes is persuasive, and their dispute ends on a note of irresolution; “You’re a pain in the ass, man,” Keith concludes, not that affectionately, and Sebastian doesn’t disagree.
The lovers go their separate ways, as movie lovers must, for much of the film’s third act—though the film’s modernity withholds that comforting old-time guarantee of eventual happiness ever after. Then, just when you’re starting to wonder if La La Land has run out of gas, it kicks into high gear with a gorgeous final number in 3/4 time—for my money, the only lasting musical earworm in Justin Hurwitz’s pretty but undistinguished score (the lyrics are by musical theater writing duo Pasek and Paul). Chazelle combines flashbacks, flash-forwards, dream sequences, and multiple musical reprises into a dazzling time-spanning montage, set like the “dream ballets” of MGM musicals in a curious intersubjective space outside the story proper. It’s in this finale that Chazelle’s imagination and skill as a filmmaker really take flight. He knows cinema alone is capable of taking us on this kind of whirlwind tour of the human psyche, and he uses the tools of the medium—color as paint, the human face and body as moving canvases, the rhythm of editing as a percussion instrument—with such consummate craft and such evident joy that for La La Land’s last 15 minutes, you can barely feel the ground beneath your feet.