In relationships, and in music, it’s all about the timing. So Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is the perfect marriage of style and story — a good old-fashioned musical about the ups and downs of one love story that struggles to stay in tempo. It’s also a sealed-with-a-kiss love letter to the city where it’s set, and the unabashed dreamers who inhabit the environs of Los Angeles.
Written and directed by Whiplash wunderkind filmmaker Chazelle, La La Land is a meticulously crafted and choreographed musical, and Chazelle pulls out every old-school trick in the book, from the Cinemascope placard that opens the film, to camera irises transitioning in and out of scenes, to a culminating dream ballet that rivals An American in Paris. There’s irony in the notion that an independent film would borrow so heavily from the style of a classic Hollywood studio musical, and that it feels so radical in doing so.
There’s an exhilarating energy that whisks the film along, starting with a meet-cute during a traffic jam on the freeway that breaks out into a soaring primary colored dance number. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress trying to break into the industry, while Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz-obsessed pianist. They can’t stop running into each other around town, and when they finally, truly connect during a screening of Rebel Without a Cause (and subsequent Griffith Observatory jaunt), everything seems to fall into place.
But they find themselves only in step for a time. With Sebastian on tour with his new band, headed up by Keith (John Legend), and Mia pouring herself into her one-woman show, the couple is pulled in different directions.
The choreography of cameras, bodies, sets and editing is so carefully crafted and perfectly placed that the missed cues of Mia and Sebastian’s missed calls and late arrivals as they try to make it work almost lack the spontaneity necessary to fully buy in. La La Land can feel like a fluffy celebration of style over substance. But the culminating last five minutes of the film — a nostalgic “what if” fantasy — are so thrillingly emotional that it more than earns the two hour lead-in.
La La Land
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend
Rated: PG-13 (mild language)
Running time: 128 min.