La La Land is a giant burst of primary color fun, a widescreen musical that marries romantic comedy with aspirational drama, and if it’s not quite the movie I was expecting overall, it’s certainly a bold and memorable motion picture. Writer/director Damien Chazelle, working in a totally different tempo than his previous film, the razor-sharp Whiplash, clearly didn’t want to repeat himself, but obviously has a thing for narratives that involve music and the power that music can bring to other people. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have superb chemistry together (they previously co-starred in Crazy, Stupid, Love) and the characters that they inhabit feel like real people thrust into a surreal movie-movie world where the song from inside their hearts guides them from moment to moment. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (Promised Land, American Hustle, Joy) does extraordinary work that at times is distractingly amazing; I was constantly aware of how many long takes were being employed and quickly became totally consumed by the visual dynamism on display.
The camera swerves, pivots, Stedicams, and floats, with a luscious color palette and impeccably designed sets matched with perfect art direction and costumes. The songs are creatively written, catchy, appropriately melancholy in spots, and uplifting all throughout, while the final 20 minutes are well considered, with the movie operating as a massive love letter to Los Angeles to the millions of dreamers who head out to the concrete jungle in search of stardom. Rosemarie Dewitt, John Legend, JK Simmons, and Tom Everett Scott provide solid support, but this is the Gosling-Stone ticket all the way, with the two of them projecting big-time movie-star appeal and turning in very likable performances. Movie like La La Land don’t get made very often, and in the same way that the story celebrates the history and future of jazz music, Chazelle’s film feels like the ultimate ode to the cinematic musical, taking classical elements and splicing them with something new and exciting, especially on a visual level. This is exuberant filmmaking.