Full disclosure: it is just possible that La La Land is not for you. Damien Chazelle's follow-up to his Oscar-winning breakout film Whiplash got such rapturous responses in its early festival releases that it started to sound like a perfect movie, capable of winning over even the worst curmudgeons. (Further proof: It won over the Washington D.C. and New York Film Critics collectives, which both named it the best film of 2016.) But the early screenings were largely for a select crowd of determined festivalgoers and industry professionals who've chosen careers in making, marketing, or just talking about the movies. In other words, the people who initially saw and loved La La Land, and hailed it as 2016's likely Best Picture frontrunner, are its target audience. It's openly aimed at cinephiles who recognize the overt references to Singin' in the Rain, West Side Story, and The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. It's meant for viewers who feel a little internal flutter when characters stroll across a studio backlot, surrounded by the accoutrements of moviemaking, then burst into song and dance.
Not everyone loves musicals, though, and La La Land won't seduce anyone who thinks The Sound of Music is grotesquely corny, or that Umbrellas of Cherbourg is some dusty old foreign film where nothing much happens. But for people who do love those movies, and the unselfconsciously joyous romantic ideals they represent, La La Land is a glorious feast for the eyes and the soul. Its complete lack of restraint, cynicism, or self-consciousness invites viewers to drop their own reservations and just feel the big, broad emotions as they're played out on-screen, through memorable songs and elaborate fantasy sequences.
The players are jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and barista-slash-actress Mia (Emma Stone), two LA residents who are past ready for some kind of big break. Sebastian is a principled jazz fan who rages at any hint of compromise, and whose latest restaurant gig, dutifully plinking out aural-wallpaper Christmas carols in a classy restaurant, doesn't last long. (He's working for an equally uncompromising owner played by Whiplash Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons, in a wink-wink cameo.) But Sebastian dreams of buying a famous historical jazz club, and re-creating its glory days. Mia, meanwhile, works at a canteen on the Warner Bros. lot, dutifully enduring awful auditions and endless self-doubts.
Together, they go through all the usual rom-com motions: they meet cute, exasperate each other, and express it all with mutual needling and snappy banter. But all the biggest conflicts in a musical eventually turn into dancing, and from dancing, Sebastian and Mia segue into dating. Soon, Mia's practicality pushes Sebastian into touring with a hugely popular band, playing music he hates for a bandleader (John Legend) he considers a sellout. Meanwhile, Sebastian's reckless enthusiasm bolsters Mia into quitting her job to write and stage her own one-woman play, regardless of the consequences. Both of them are living out a certain form of the artistic dream — she's following her muse without seeking anyone else's approval, he's got a lucrative and steady gig, where doting audiences cheer for him every night. But neither of them are happy, because they're embracing each other's idea of success, at the expense of their own.
The choreography is one of the film's biggest assets
La La Land's first act sets up Mia and Sebastian's relationship with a terrific mixture of energy and gravity, as they banter, flirt, and dance through one classically staged pas de deux after another. (Choreographer Mandy Moore has been a regular contributor on competition shows like Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, and her mastery of tight, precision Astaire-and-Rogers coordinated movement is one of the film's biggest assets.) The story falters a bit after that, rushing some sequences, and leaping forward in time in a way that completely changes the film's tone and tempo. To Chazelle's credit, he resists the most obvious story beats, and his unconventional story sets up a powerhouse final sequence that's designed to wring maximum tears out of the audience, while letting them appreciate the cunning construction. Like Whiplash, La La Land is forceful and uncompromising about the emotions it wants viewers to feel. And like Whiplash, it uses music as an endlessly effective weapon against any possible resistance.
It also uses self-aware humor, a vivid candy-colored palette, and a series of iconic LA settings, from the Angels Flight funicular to Griffith Observatory, where Rebel Without A Cause set its most famous sequence. Chazelle is open about his references: in one of the many approving nods to Old Hollywood, Sebastian and Mia watch Rebel in a theater before heading to the observatory. In their first dance, Sebastian even does a little whirl around a conveniently placed lamppost, in a callback to Singin' in the Rain. This is a movie of hat-tips, almost more of a meta-musical than an independent story.
But that, too, was inspired by Singin' in the Rain — which was parodying Even Older Hollywood, while maintaining a heavy dose of affection for it as a more innocent and enthusiastic era of movie magic. Both films sink deep into idealization and nostalgia. And both are full of in-jokes and references, but still endlessly earnest about emotions, and enthusiastic about the physicality of dance. La La Land is essentially this century's Singin' in the Rain, from the showy dance numbers to the vividly colored costumes to the cheeky humor.
The biggest difference is that Gosling and Stone largely lack the force of personality Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds brought to Singin' in the Rain. Their voices make them odd choices for a full-scale musical: Gosling's is gravelly and shy, and Stone's is mostly the kind of high, thready whisper that earned Helena Bonham Carter so much disdain in Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd. When it's finally time for Stone to belt, she belts, and it's a wonderful moment. The thematic reasons Chazelle held her back suddenly become clear. But too much of the film's runtime leaves her in whispery, understated mode. Still, the two of them have a terrific physical presence, and they handle the demands of the dance well enough to erase uncertainty about their uncertain voices.
The giddy energy of a director coming back from a major success
It remains to be seen whether La La Land can withstand the test of time, the way its inspirations have. But Chazelle suggests he isn't interested in history so much as living in the moment, and creating something that says what he wants to say about the specific uplift of classic Hollywood musicals. The craft of La La Land is impeccable, from the energetically active camera to the staging and production design that re-creates the past without feeling dated. But there's a reckless cockiness to the production as well, an attitude that says "The audience is on our side here. We'll copy whatever we want, be as broad and unsubtle as we want, and skip ahead at random, to whatever part of the story interests us most." This is the giddy energy of a director coming back from a major success, and seizing on the freedom to play with whatever toys he wants.
There's a flippant exchange partway through La La Land where Mia worries about her one-woman show: "It feels really nostalgic to me." "That's the point," Sebastian tells her. "Are people going to like it?" she asks. And he gives her a manic grin and says "Fuck 'em." They're obviously talking more about Chazelle's production than Mia's, and in this moment, Chazelle is reminding the audience that he doesn't really care if some people in the theater aren't on board. His stars are dancing through a familiar playground, and it's enough that anyone who remembers these moves and these feelings is invited to come along for the ride.
This review originally appeared on September 14, 2016 in conjunction with the film's screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival. It has been republished to coincide with the film's wide theatrical opening.