The opening scene of “La La Land” could not be more LA: bright blue sky, beautiful people, traffic jam. After panning over various frustrated drivers (who have now come to a complete standstill), the camera lingers on a cheery woman in a bright yellow dress. Her lighthearted humming turns into a full on musical number, complete with twirling dancers and booming instruments. Thirty-one-year-old director Damien Chazelle transformed a Los Angeles freeway into a stage, and used that stage to create a musical number that will go down in history. “La La Land” starts on a high note, and only gets better.
The woman in the yellow dress begins the song by telling the story of her high school sweetheart, whom she left behind in her “sleepy town” to pursue her dreams in LA. Her anecdote foreshadows the film’s greatest tension: the one between artistic and romantic ambition.
The movie follows Mia (Emma Stone), a barista trying to make it big as an actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a pianist without a steady gig who wants to preserve the integrity of jazz. Mia dreams of starring in a blockbuster, but her dreams are slowly chipped away by each casting director that turns her down. Meanwhile, Sebastian is saving up to someday open his own jazz club, but along the way lowers his musical standards for gigs that bring fast cash. Their attraction to each other isn’t exactly instantaneous, but it isn’t long until they’re swept off their feet.
“La La Land” explores the benefits and complications of a relationship between two people who are just as crazy about their art as they are about each other. It offers both an escape into a magical world of love, and a reminder that real life isn’t a fairytale. And it does all this in a wonderful salute to Old Hollywood.
The first nod to Old Hollywood is the giant poster of Ingrid Bergman that adorns Mia’s wall. Next it’s the neon lights à la “Singin’ in the Rain” that dazzle as she goes to a party. Gosling treats us to a Gene Kelly-style lamppost swing. Mia and Seb walk past the window from “Casablanca,” and pay a visit to the Griffith Observatory featured in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Chazelle balances this homage with very modern elements, such as the familiar iPhone ringtone signaling the end of number “A Lovely Night.”
Loud and colorful musical tunes aren’t the only thing on the film’s soundtrack. For one, there’s John Legend, who gives a great performance as Sebastian’s frenemy. Then there’s the score: Chazelle’s partner-in-crime Justin Hurwitz has an ear for music well beyond his years. The soft waltz “Planetarium” literally sounds like falling in love, while “Herman’s Habit” brings Sebastian’s passion for jazz to life. And the eight-minute-long “Epilogue” is epic, on par with the “Broadway Melody Ballet” from “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Speaking of the epilogue, that final number left me feeling much like the first one did. I had witnessed something truly great. Chazelle, Hurwitz, Stone, and Gosling created an instant classic, a beautiful story that will forever resonate with dreamers. “La La Land” is one for the ages.
IMAGE COURTESY OF INDIEWIRE