There's a moment in every movie musical that's fraught with danger: the first time a character bursts into song. If a film's transition to the world of musicals seems awkward, it only calls attention to the lack of cinematic "realism" suffered even by the finest examples of the form. Musicals that start off on the right foot still must contend with the looming disapproval of today's moviegoers, many of whom have little interest in anything as old-fashioned as watching actors sing and dance their way through a film.
In La La Land, writer-director Damien Chazelle cleverly handles the early transition through a character that first sings along with a car radio. What immediately follows, however, is jaw-dropping. In a meticulously choreographed and seemingly edit-free musical number staged in a traffic jam on a real Los Angeles freeway, dozens of singers and dancers of every imaginable type get out of their cars and celebrate the city, the diversity and tenacity of its people and the pure joy of self-expression — all before anyone utters a single word of dialogue.
For sheer originality and exuberance, La La Land's opening sequence beats anything seen on the big screen this year. But it's not the finest moment in Chazelle's remarkably accomplished film.
Essentially a romance between struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and struggling jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), La La Land blends magic derived from the finest Hollywood and foreign musicals of the 1940s and '50s with a modern sensibility that finally brings the genre into the 21st century. Like all movie musicals, La La Land requires a suspension of disbelief from anyone interested in entering and enjoying what is essentially a make-believe world. But there's a lightness of touch and an emotional honesty to the film that make it easy to leave even well-worn cynicism behind.
Stone and Gosling have appeared together on film twice before (including the hit romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love), and they were cast in La La Land to capitalize on their obvious onscreen chemistry. There's a halting, vulnerable quality to their vocal performances that makes each of their characters appealing and relatable. Their dance-focused scenes (choreographed by Mandy Moore of TV's So You Think You Can Dance) are warm and expressive enough to recall classic pairings like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. For all its Hollywood gloss, La La Land never seems slick or calculated.
The film moves easily between music- and dialogue-driven sequences because each is built to support the other. With music composed by Chazelle's college classmate Justin Hurwitz (who also collaborated with the director on last year's Oscar-nominated Whiplash) and lyrics by Broadway's Pasek and Paul, the score repeatedly delivers simple and effective songs that stick with you the first time you hear them. But La La Land's secret ingredient is the way all of its song and dance are based firmly in character and story, lending the musical scenes surprising depth.
It's hard to remember the last time the city of Los Angeles looked so enticing in a movie. Shot in ultra-widescreen (the film begins not with title or credits but a CinemaScope logo) and featuring colorful local settings such as the Hermosa Beach pier and Griffith Observatory, La La Land comes across as a heartfelt love letter to a much-maligned city. But genuine emotion is what makes the film so special. It's best accepted as an unexpected holiday gift from a long-lost friend, and one intended to spread a little joy at the end of a difficult year.