Editors note: This review originally was published August 31 after La La Land‘s Venice premiere. It opens in theaters today.
Coming off the promise of the Oscar-winning Whiplash, it will be no surprise that writer-director Damien Chazelle is a talented filmmaker, but that movie did not prepare me for the experience of seeing La La Land, his homage to the great screen musicals of French director Jacques Demy as well as MGM’s golden era. But this is too smart a movie maker to just do a simple tribute to a bygone era. His film starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is a gorgeous romantic fever dream of a musical that should hit contemporary audiences right in their sweet spot.
It has been a very long time since we have seen something quite this lyrical, lovely, and most importantly, original on the screen, but at the same time it is a musical that has its feet firmly planted in the real world, even if the one up there on the wide Cinemascope screen is very stylized. As I say in my video review above, La La Land had me on its side right from the opening logo for Summit (the film’s distributor as part of Lionsgate) with its black-and-white square box (reminiscent of the old RKO Radio logo) which morphs magically into the widescreen Cinemascope card seen at the front of so many great ’50s and ’60s musicals.
La La Land is full of this kind of tip-of-the-hat to the past, but the story of an aspiring jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) who falls for a struggling actress Mia (Stone) has many ups and downs that will make it relatable to today’s moviegoers not used to films where the characters stop every few minutes to sing and dance. Gosling and Stone are not trying to be the new Fred and Ginger, but rather people now dealing with having a relationship where their own individual dreams sometimes get in the way. In fact, you could probably take away most of the music and the story would still work on its own level. But to have the memorable new songs written by Justin Hurwitz and the Broadway lyricist team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, as well as the sensational choreography of Mandy Moore weaving in and out of these lives is, for me at least, manna from movie heaven. Gosling and Stone prove to be accomplished musically, with Gosling even learning how to be a credible jazz pianist on screen. Both are simply superb and Stone, determined in her drive to become a successful actress, will break your heart. She’s never been better and I think actors everywhere will empathize. John Legend making his thesp debut as a musician friend of Sebastian who convinces him to join his group, causing complications in the relationship, is very impressive. Chazelle’s Oscar winner J.K. Simmons even turns up in an extended cameo.
But where this film really thrives is in its technical efficiency from the brilliant cinematography by Linus Sandgren, production design by David Wasco, set decoration by Sandy Wasco, costumes by Mary Zophres, the efficient editing from Oscar winner Tom Cross and every department across the board. There is clear inspiration from the musical genius of artists like Gene Kelly and Vincente Minnelli, to especially Demy and Michel LeGrand, but the style and substance is clearly owned by Chazelle who successfully brings the movie musical back to a sense of belonging in the Hollywood firmament.
Whether it is a dazzling song-and-dance opening set in a massive traffic jam on an L.A. freeway, or a spectacular sequence with Gosling and Stone flying high into the skies of the Griffith Observatory, the musical numbers soar with their own vibrancy and urgency. We live in hard times, but this is a movie worth savoring, something that entertains, enlightens and makes us feel good about being alive. It is not to be missed by anyone who still cares for the future of the American musical. Jordan Horowitz, Fred Berger, Gary Gilbert and Marc Platt produced.
Do you plan to see La La Land? Let us know what you think.