VENICE, Italy — Somewhere along the line, perhaps it was Glee (it was Glee), live-action musicals went the way of Milli Vanilli, slap bracelets, and Donald Trump’s heel spurs. They degenerated into violent paroxysms of gaiety; singing for singing’s sake, bereft of motive or explanation; as if trapped in a room with a possessed theater major high on caramel macchiato. In short: intolerable cruelty.
Somewhere between Nine and Rock of Ages, the studios took notice, coming to the realization that once-fertile Oscar fruit had gone rotten. They went so far as bribing Golden Globes-administering foreign film journalists, whose starfucking knows no bounds. For Burlesque, they flew a group of them to Vegas for an all-expenses-paid trip that included luxury hotel, free meals, and VIP tickets to a Cher concert; for Into the Woods, a high-class trip to New York City with a generous per diem.
The deck was certainly stacked against La La Land—a movie-musical bearing a title that, if uttered out loud in L.A., might elicit a swift right to the jaw. And then its opening scene hits you.
It opens on a familiar scene: bumper-to-bumper traffic. Hundreds of cars are stuck at a standstill on the freeway headed to downtown L.A. The camera moves slowly down the road, capturing driver after driver drowning out the monotony with varying genres of music. Then all of a sudden, a woman pops her head out of the driver’s-side window, belting out a tune. She opens the door and begins dancing down the highway. Others join her, singing and dancing to “Another Day of Sun,” and before you know it, the mundane has become magical as you witness a full-fledged song-and-dance number with big-beat drums, backflips, and commuters dancing on top of a line of cars trailing as far as the eye can see. Welcome to the wonderful world of La La Land.
The wildly ambitious third feature from writer-director Damien Chazelle, which opened the 2016 Venice Film Festival and will drop stateside in December, is a love letter to anyone that grew up on musicals of the ’50s and ’60s, from Singin’ in the Rain and Bye Bye Birdie to Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Whereas Chazelle’s previous film, the Oscar-winning Whiplash, was awash in blacks, ambers, and oranges, this decidedly more joyful picture is bursting with color, depicting Los Angeles as an enchanted boulevard of dreams broken and fulfilled.
Two of those dreamers are Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Mia is an aspiring playwright and actress, slaving away as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, serving up lattes and vegan croissants to those who’ve ostensibly “made it.” Sebastian, meanwhile, is a tormented (it’s Ryan Gosling) and gifted jazz pianist who hopes to open his own caliginous club one day, but spends his nights twinkling the ivories at a family restaurant under the watchful eye of his boss, played by J.K. Simmons. Mia and Sebastian are also stuck in the aforementioned traffic jam, and after a few brusque encounters, connect at a party in the Hollywood Hills. Mia is a guest, a pretty young ornament to the surroundings, while Sebastian is the “entertainment”: the keyboardist in an elaborately-outfitted ’80s cover band. It is here that we—bless you, Damien—get to see Ryan Gosling mock-serenade Emma Stone to Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” on the keytar as she mock-dances in return. It’s just as glorious as it sounds.
Pretty soon, they’re giving their best Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, tap-dancing on top of a hill against a breathtaking vista. It’s one of many bewitching sequences that will have you grinning from ear to ear. The two soon fall for one another, but as they begin to court success—he in a touring band led by his music-school rival, Keith (John Legend), she as a playwright—they find themselves drifting apart, consumed by their striving and with no vacancy for love.
Much of the success of a colossal undertaking like this hinges on the two lead actors, and suffice it to say Stone and Gosling have the goods. Their chemistry sizzled in Crazy, Stupid, Love.—whose standout sequence was a dance routine, no less—and the otherwise disappointing Gangster Squad, but here reaches new heights. These throwback characters seem tailor-made for their talents, as Gosling’s inscrutable stoicism and pained looks have always screamed Bogart, while Stone’s emotive, almond-shaped eyes and effortless goodwill emit an aura of timelessness. Plus they’re up to the singing-and-dancing challenge, too. Gosling, as you might remember, cut his teeth in the Mickey Mouse Club as a kid alongside the likes of Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera, while Emma Stone’s first sorta-break came in winning the VH1 talent competition series In Search of the New Partridge Family. He also makes for as convincing a piano player as Miles Teller was as a percussionist in Whiplash.
But the lion’s share of the kudos must go to Chazelle, who’s achieved something truly extraordinary here: an achingly romantic movie-musical that makes the old new again. Each frame is dripping with reverence for movies past, and his roving camera enlivens each spectacular dance sequence, acting as another player in this game for two. While the film does hit a minor lag toward the start of its final-third, as the thrilling set pieces take a backseat to the usual relationship ups and downs, the gifted 31-year-old filmmaker brings it all back home in the finale. To quote the hopeful Mia, “Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem.”