The Los Angeles of Damien Chazelle’s new musical La La Land is the Los Angeles of fantasy and myth, an accretion of nearly a hundred years’ worth of cautionary tales and Cinderella stories about “the ones who dream” (to quote a line from one of the film’s best songs), most of them spun by Hollywood, especially in the movies it makes about itself. The story told by La La Land—the one about the wannabe actress squatting on the fringes of the studios, looking for her break—has been around since the beginning of Hollywood cinema and will likely never go away. It’s been reified by movies like Singin’ in the Rain and all three iterations of A Star Is Born (a fourth is on the way), and was reheated most recently in The Artist. It’s now been updated for 2016 with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, both powerfully charismatic as star-crossed dreamers Mia and Sebastian, whose turbulent love affair unfolds on the Warner Brothers backlot and is set to an infectiously hummable Michel-Legrand-inflected song score. Even if Chazelle isn’t saying anything particularly new in La La Land, he does it with as much style, panache and heart as can be found in any of the classic musicals of the 1950s and ’60s.
More cynical viewers will no doubt object to the schematic and cliché nature of La La Land’s plot. But it’s certainly no worse than the plot of something like An American in Paris, to say nothing of such featherweight trifles as Swing Time or Top Hat. The appeal of such movies—and of musicals generally—lies in their ability to Get us on the level of pure emotion, to sweep us up in colors so vibrant, stars so likable, and songs so charming that we forget how simple and dumb their stories are. At their best moments, such musicals Get us even when we’re determined not to be Gotten, and we wind up fighting back tears in spite of ourselves. By the end of La La Land I found myself almost as moved by its bittersweet “what might have been?” finale as I am by the Jacques Demy musicals from which it takes many of its cues, like Lola and The Young Girls of Rochefort. (Chazelle borrows not only Demy’s eye-popping color schemes but also his tendency to romanticize bad timing and missed connections.)
All of that is to say that La La Land is, warts and all, the most accomplished film musical in recent memory, and one of the only film musicals of this century (Once being an exception) to sport an entirely original score. (Risk-averse studio heads are much more likely to greenlight film adaptations of existing properties like Les Miserables or Into the Woods than they are to take a chance on a musical no one has ever heard of.) Not all of the songs work; the big, splashy ensemble numbers at the beginning seem to belong to a different movie than the spare, melancholy jazz ballads that dominate the later scenes (and which are all solos or duets for Stone and Gosling). When La La Land works, though—as in the final scene when Gosling and Stone lock eyes, and he picks out the notes of the piano melody that first drew her into his club—none of its flaws seem to matter. The appeal of Gosling and Stone and that music is strong enough to stop a train. It’ll Get you.