Presented in Cinemascope, “La La Land” (Lionsgate) is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s singing and dancing love letter to Hollywood movie musicals and Los Angeles. For fans of Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” jazz gets a big, fat, wet kiss, too.
Taking viewers through five seasons (from winter to winter), plus five years, La La Land opens with an impressive freeway traffic jam song and dance number. We are introduced to barista/aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and uncompromising jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who meet-cute when he honks at her and she flips him off. They then cross paths a few more times before really connecting at a Hollywood party.
Evolving from antagonism to attraction, Mia and Sebastian navigate their situation. Mia realizes that she has nothing in common with boyfriend Greg (Finn Wittrock) and leaves him. Sebastian learns to love more than jazz, and that includes Mia, as well as the fusion music he performs when he becomes a member of a successful band led by Keith (John Legend). As their relationship develops, Mia and Sebastian encourage each other in their professional endeavors, although in doing so, they discover things about themselves and each other that they hadn’t foreseen.
Following the traditional movie musical formula, characters break into song at a moment’s notice. The original songs, with music by Justin Hurwitz and rising Broadway legends Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, including “City of Stars,” “A Lovely Night” and “Another Day of Sun,” are refreshing and memorable. The choreography, including big dance numbers by Gosling and Stone (such as the one at the Griffin Park Observatory), is appealing.
Maybe this is just the inner gay voice speaking, but Gosling’s intense beauty only magnifies Stone’s non-traditional looks. Lots of peripheral characters, played by Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons (as Sebastian’s boss), Rosemarie DeWitt (as Sebastian’s sister) and Tom Everett Scott, bolster the film. “La La Land” has more in common with the big screen musicals of Baz Luhrmann than it does with the work of Stanley Donen, Vincente Minnelli or George Cukor, although Chazelle certainly owes a debt to all of these directors. Music destroyed lives in “Whiplash.” In “La La Land,” it saves them.