Ever since his first film, the imperfect-yet-promising modern musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Damien Chazelle’s films have all been about the way music can change everyday life. Guy and Madeline presented a bland present day, occasionally brightened by the presence of music through the boredom of chain restaurant shifts and walks home. Whiplash showed music’s power on a path to greatness, creating an environment where you can be a rusher in a world full of draggers. In his newest film La La Land, Chazelle makes his love for the impact of music its most vibrant, creating a technicolor dream, a masterpiece of musicals, that revitalizes the genre for the first time in decades. In Chazelle’s hands, music can make rush hour traffic a choreographed wonder or turn a search for a parked car into a transcendent experience.
La La Land continues Chazelle’s interest in how creativity vibrates with an artist’s personal life. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling jazz musician unwilling to compromise his love for the dying genre (he wants to open his own club). Mia (Emma Stone) is a barista on the Warner Bros. lot, hoping to one day become an actress like the stars she serves. As is the way with musicals, these two meet and fall in love, which on the surface isn’t all that special. It’s how Chazelle handles this growing love, and the subsequent struggles, that makes this an outstanding love story.
Chazelle fills many scenes with an exuberant joy, where colors brightly pop and music radiates out of nowhere. It’s not as if Sebastian and Mia’s relationship is anything substantial, but a search for a car becomes an homage to Singin’ in the Rain, or holding hands for the first time plays like the world could explode if handled wrong. Every moment is choreographed with otherworldly lyricism and beauty, yet only a few degrees away from our world. Chazelle has found a way to create magic out of the everyday and share it with us.
La La Land is able to build on its inspirations, without ripping these films off. The musicals of Gene Kelly, Jacques Demy, and Astaire/Rogers are part of Sebastian and Mia’s shared memory, and they intentionally try to make moments from them come in to their world. Since La La Land takes place in Los Angeles, the city is filled with the history of past entertainments, breathed into almost every moment. This isn’t just Chazelle’s love letter to musicals: it’s his admiration of old Hollywood, for jazz music, and for the people who never give up in their attempts for greatness.
La La Land establishes Emma Stone is one of the greatest living actresses who can pretty much do anything. In many scenes, she’s asked to be hilarious and dramatic within seconds of each other, sometimes even while singing or dancing. When she questions her own goals, it’s hard not to feel for her. Stone does this with simple choices of inflection that give the audience an idea of her pressure, and she conveys pain with the choice of how she says a word or the way the moves her face. In one particular scene, Stone is in denial when Sebastian pushes her that she could be great. The way Stone says “maybe I’m not” in a completely different way, each time, is just one example of the multiple layers she brings to this incredible performance.
Gosling is also great, and not just because he learned all those tricky jazz licks on the piano. With Stone, we see her gifts through her performance, but with Gosling, it’s slightly more artificial. Still, his ability to tell an entire story through his eyes makes up for this. Especially in the film’s final act, when Sebastian must perform for an unexpected audience, the restraint in his performance and the journey we’ve taken with him makes for the film’s most emotional scene.
The music and dancing in La La Land is always joyous and the choreography realistic. La La Land doesn’t go for bombastic, but it’s still near-impossible to not walk out of the theater humming the standout song “City of Stars.” Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz aren’t going for game changers in terms of music or dance, but instead, they knock you out with the feeling these moments give. It’s not as if Stone and Gosling are exactly Astaire and Rogers, but when they dance in sync under a streetlight or move together at an observatory, their sincerity matters more than their precision.
La La Land isn’t just one of the best films of 2016, it’s one of the best musicals in maybe 50 years. It’s also exactly what movies were made for. Time and time again, Chazelle, Stone, Gosling, and Hurwitz evoke that wondrous feeling only movies can create. La La Land creates a world of pure bliss, one that isn’t that far off from our own. If the world we live in can be filled with such similar beautiful moments, Chazelle shows us what a wonderful world it could be.