Among the most exciting filmmakers of his generation, director Damien Chazelle made waves with his second effort, Whiplash, the film taking home three Oscars and announcing Chazelle as a true talent. Thankfully, he’s confirmed that status with La La Land, a Los Angeles-set musical that not only harkens back to a time when the genre was synonymous with Hollywood itself, but also manages to carve its own distinct path.
Celebrating L.A. stereotypes, the film follows two artists consumed by their dreams: Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress working as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician looking to open his own club but stuck behind the pianos of stale restaurants. After eventually meeting, the two fall for each other, bonding over their obsession with their respective passions and pushing the other to follow their dreams. However, they soon find themselves in disagreement, the film exploring just how exactly we should weigh success.
With musicals few and far between in modern cinema, La La Land is a breath of fresh air, filled to the brim with beautiful tunes from composer/songwriter Justin Hurwitz. The film is a nonstop ride from the start, opening with an immensely colorful, breathtaking dance number set on L.A.’s most used freeway (magnificently filmed by cinematographer Linus Sandgren) before catapulting into the true plot. While each piece is impressive, two stand out from the rest: a fittingly dreamlike duet visualized through a star-set dance above the Griffith Observatory, and an emotionally stirring melody from Stone (“Audition”) that’s a likely frontrunner for the Best Original Song Oscar.
However, the genius of La La Land is found beyond the music, Chazelle looking past the shiny exteriors of the musical and finding the humanity in a genre not typically full of it. This is after all a tale of two people who’ve been cast aside, never being allowed the chance to showcase their talent, finding solace only in the embrace of each other. It’s also a deeply personal film, one inspired by Chazelle’s past struggles as a director dreaming of some kind of recognition, some avenue to express his skill. That palpable humanity is especially evident in the film’s closing, an enormously powerful, tragic scene that reaches a level of profundity never before seen in a musical.
That depth is expertly captured by the two leads, Stone and Gosling turning in career-best work as Mia and Sebastian. Having already worked together on two films (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad), the pair’s chemistry is electric, both in and out of the film’s dance sequences. Stone in particular astonishes, delivering a performance that capitalizes on the actress’ public admiration while also brilliantly twisting her relatably awkward persona on its head, which is singularly impressive in the aforementioned closing.
Among the finest musicals ever made, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is a shockingly layered film that manages to simultaneously triumph as a joyous cinematic experience, an exploration of how we value success in achieving our dreams, and a celebration of Los Angeles from a man accustomed to its trials.