The movie musical used to be a standby of American film, but fell out of favor somewhere between the end of Woodstock and the birth of disco. Attempts have been made to revive and reinvent the form but none since 2002’s Chicago have hit. However, La La Land goes all-in with song and dance and, while the experiment is not 100% successful, it’s a glorious, giddy ride.
La La Land uses its musical interludes to convey the exultant emotions that real-world actions and dialogue simply can’t—like falling in love. The movie follows the trajectory of the romance between aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they chase their dreams and each other through a Los Angeles that is all sunshine, primary colors and movie star murals.
The exultant opening number is an ode to L.A. that turns a bumper-to-bumper, horn-blasting traffic jam into a giant celebration—and a meet-cute for our protagonists. The two are an unlikely pairing: Mia comes from Boulder City, Nevada (Woot! Represent!) and still has enough stardust in her eyes to keep chasing her actress dream, going on auditions for things she describes as “Dangerous Minds meets the O.C.,” while Sebastian is a cynic devoted to old-school jazz and fixated on having his own club.
Director Damien Chazelle (his last film was the also jazz-inflected Whiplash) creates a city of sunny movie-studio backlots and dimly-lit retro clubs, with Stone and Gosling twirling and crooning through classic film locations such as the Griffith Observatory. The two aren’t accomplished singers and dancers (Gosling occasionally needs a pretty little bucket to carry a tune in, but he fortunately relies more on piano.) but they pull it off thanks to charisma and production design. Of course, why the roles didn’t go to musical theater types becomes clear when the relationship begins to founder, the singing stops and Mia and Sebastian are left to confront what they really want from each other—and for themselves.
The ending feels a bit unsatisfying, as though Chazelle wasn’t sure just what he wanted to pull of and figured a dose of sentimentality with a few dollops of An American in Paris and Funny Face would wrap things up. It’s not a perfect film, but La La Land is still a delightful trip to a magical, musical world.