The ‘magic of cinema’ is a loose term: an old cliché that’s hard to pin down, an intangible quality that’s either there or it isn’t. Whatever it is, Damien Chazelle’s stunning new film La La Land has it in spades. From its show-stopping opening number, this sumptuous modern musical encapsulates the magic of cinema and never looks back, paying homage to the classics of Vincente Minelli and Jacques Demy en route to becoming a contemporary classic in its own right.
That opening scene is set in a traffic jam on a sun-soaked Los Angeles freeway that quickly erupts into a dazzling musical number, with Chazelle’s camera weaving through the traffic as more and more bodies emerge from their stationary cars. Dancers, skateboarders, stunt riders and various other performers fly across the screen as a number of would-be stars sing of their Hollywood hopes and dreams, setting the stage for our central couple, who we meet when the singing subsides, giving way to the reality of car horns and mild road rage. They are Mia (Emma Stone) and Seb (Ryan Gosling), two strivers in a city full of them.
She’s an aspiring actress, working shifts as a barista on the Warner Bros backlot to pay the bills. He’s a jazz pianist, stuck playing background music in restaurants or at parties. Their first meeting comes during the traffic jam as Seb’s impatient honking inspires a middle-finger from Mia. Their paths continue to cross, as though fate is throwing them together, though it isn’t until a chance meeting at a party – where Seb is playing keytar for an 80s cover band, no less – that sparks begin to fly. Gosling and Stone maybe don’t have the dancing chops of, say, Astaire and Rogers, but their onscreen chemistry is off the charts. The depiction of their burgeoning relationship is achingly romantic with a couple of charming dance numbers – one overlooking the city, the other literally amongst the stars – charting their journey from verbal sparring partners to full on lovers.
The sunny song-and-dance of the film’s first half eventually gives way to the more sombre realities of Mia and Seb’s relationship. They both encourage each other’s passions and dreams: Mia pushes Seb to get the money together to finally open a jazz club of his own; Seb encourages Mia to write her own one-woman show, instead of waiting for a good role to come her way. Before long, the pressures of trying to realise their individual goals while maintaining their relationship begins to take its toll on Seb and Mia; they clearly love each other, but they have to wrestle with the possibility that together they will always be holding each other back in some way.
In asking these questions about the strive to reach certain artistic goals and the sacrifices made along the way, La La Land begins to call to mind Chazelle’s breakout film Whiplash. That film was an almost unbearably tense thriller but it tread similar thematic ground, exploring the sacrifices that must be made in the pursuit for greatness. It’s in this section of the film that Stone and Gosling’s status as actors first, dancers second becomes essential as both have some dramatic heavy-lifting to do. Gosling’s soulful, taciturn performance ensures Seb’s stubborn jazz purism and longing for a lost era from come off as more than just a hipster affectation. Stone’s is sensational, particularly in a power house audition scene that’s sure to be played right before she collects an Oscar. She’s a naturally beguiling and engaging performer but here that’s a vulnerability and emotional honesty that lends and edge to her usual comedic charms.
Whether it be in the musical numbers or in its use of colour, La La Land borrows from a variety of classic musicals – from West Side Story to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – but Chazelle spins it all into something that’s more than a cheap pastiche. Chazelle’s technique is lively and often dazzling, but the story he’s telling is deeply heartfelt, completely charming and its beautifully bittersweet ending leaves you with a tear in your eye and a song in your heart. This is the kind of dreamy, swooning romance that they genuinely just don’t make anymore and a touching ode to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem.