La La Land; 128min; Rated PG-13
I admit that I have always possessed a bias against Hollywood musicals. When dialogue abruptly shifts to singing and music moves from the background to the foreground, I have found it difficult to suspend my disbelief.
And so it was with some reluctance that I sat in a darkened theater and waited for “La La Land” to begin. I admit that even the title gave me pause. When it started, the opening scene, while energetic, seemed a bit retro (I flashed on “Grease”). I was already growing restless. Young, beautiful people, stuck on an L.A. freeway in bumper to bumper traffic, suddenly leave their cars and start singing while standing on the hoods and roofs of their cars, the song, “Another Day of Sunshine.” Palm trees dot the horizon, the colors lift off the screen. A perfect day in L.A… But singing? Dancing?
And then something completely unexpected and surprising happens. “La La Land” becomes almost magical, quickly morphing into a creative and seamless story that is incredibly winning. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it is magnificent and wonderful, crafted by writer/director Damien Chazelle, composed by Justin Hurwitz with lyrics by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul. And what lyrics they are. Together they have created an astonishing collaboration that is transformative and delightful, most especially the theme song, a wistful ballad called “City of Stars.”
So I sit here, with my computer, looking at the screen, asking myself how to write sentences that will encourage moviegoers to discover this film and allow themselves to be swept away by the music and the superb performances of Emma Stone as Mia and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian. Both are denizens of L.A., and both possess dreams yet to be fulfilled. His is to use his talent on the piano to play pure jazz in a club of his own. Hers is to audition (which she does time after time, to heartbreaking effect) for a part that will allow her to not only display her deep reservoir of talent but to truly unleash it.
Sebastian and Mia meet briefly, then meet again, and, inevitably, they begin a journey that is heartfelt and sad and wonderful, their moments together enriched by songs and thematic music that will echo for days after you leave the theater. There are moments in this film that are breathtaking, they are so original and filled with artistic risk-taking.
At its core, “La La Land” is a simple story: boy meets girl, falls in love, and finally they sing and dance as the early evening lights of L.A. appear like so many thousands of surreal stars, the horizon still a gauzy red-purple glow as the sun reluctantly sets. Sensational.
Don’t hold back. Trust me. This film is far more than an attempt to pay homage to old-timey Hollywood musicals that were once so ubiquitous. Chazelle has crafted something glorious, and he has elicited from Stone and Gosling startlingly good performances — I mean they are really good. Sit back and open your heart and let “La La Land” charm you and make you smile, sadly, especially at the end. If given a chance, you will be enchanted, I promise.