If you like musicals such as New York, New York and Mary Poppins… well, that’s fine. Those are great movies, but while La La Land has much in common with others in that genre, it manages to be something more, and indeed, something very special.
Seemingly an homage to musicals from Hollywood’s distant past, La La Land transcends all of this to tell a modern tale of ambition, sacrifice, and love. And of course, there’s singing. And dancing. Lots of it, in fact. The songs by Justin Hurwitz are as catchy as can be, as is the choreography by Mandy Moore (no, not that one). The set list combines the best of piano-heavy jazz (think Thelonious) and musical theatre.
The song-based set pieces rarely sneak up on the audience, but their execution often does. From a dueling dance duet in the middle of the street, to a pair of lovers sing-talking at the piano, to a huge production number complete with high-wire hijinks and rich graphics, La La Land has every Broadway-inspired song type checked off.
It all takes place in a modern Hollywood that references icons like the Griffith Observatory of Rebel Without a Cause fame, but more often features dingy streets covered with spots of oil and filled to the brim with traffic. The shine of the city is gone, but it lives on in the characters, especially a pair of young dreamers we can’t wait to see live out their dreams.
Ryan Gosling as Sebastian is as good as he’s ever been, especially taking into account the singing and stepping out. His hubris is a nice buffer for his likeableness, where a smooth, biting tongue hides a good soul. His desire to open up his own jazz club seems naive, but his passion overrides this easy dismissal.
And Emma Stone as Mia. Where to be begin? She’s sublime, pulling off that trick of living into the role of a struggling actress all while making it look effortless. Stone is always good, but here she delivers an intense performance that is simultaneously low-key and fun.
The smaller parts are pretty good, too. Director Damien Chazelle brings back J.K. Simmons from Whiplash in a relatively light role, and John Legend superbly portrays a popular musician, in the least-surprising casting decision of all time.
La La Land is the best kind of escapism. It is a fantasy that doesn’t simply offer a refuge from the world; it invites the audience in, and taps its feet and ivory keys in ways that evoke the best of what it means to be alive and kicking.
Dreams don’t always come true, and in La La Land, as in life, the often don’t, but by putting the spotlight on a pair of dreamers, dreaming their dreams together, this wonderful film makes everything okay, one song at a time.