Musicals aren’t necessarily dead, but the success of the genre in film is certainly not where it was 60 years ago. Outside of animated films, it’s hard to think of a recent successful musical, and the few that do come to mind have some sort of twist or gimmick, or at the very least they’re based on preexisting material. That’s what makes La La Land one of the year’s more pleasant surprises – it’s a musical that calls back to classics of the genre while telling a story that feels just fresh enough to make it capture an audience’s attention.
Set in modern-day Los Angeles, La La Land focuses on a couple of dreamers: jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone). After running into each other a few times with botched results, the two eventually grow close and begin a relationship. As their careers move in different directions, though, their relationship is challenged, and it’s not clear whether their relationship will survive.
La La Land marks the third on-screen pairing of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (following Crazy, Stupid, Love. and Gangster Squad), and it’s easy to see why they’re collaborating again: they have a chemistry that’s electric. Neither Gosling nor Stone are natural singers or dancers, but they commit to their performances, and between that commitment and that undeniable chemistry, they’re completely convincing in their roles. It also helps that, as the story progresses, the drama surrounding them increases too, and both Gosling and Stone are more than talented enough to carry the film as it transitions into weightier territory.
More striking is that La La Land is, on the surface at least, a complete 180° turn from writer/director Damien Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash. As dark as Whiplash got, La La Land goes to the magical in just as drastic a fashion. The film opens with cars stuck in LA’s notorious traffic, and the drivers begin to break into song, leading to a fully-realized unbroken take of these drivers dancing on top of their cars and on the freeway. It’s effective at establishing the tone of the film, and it’s something he repeats frequently in the song-and-dance numbers: Chazelle works in long, unbroken takes that show the actors and dancers using their bodies to convey what’s going on.
Chazelle also imbues the script with plenty of nods to classic Hollywood. Beyond the musical comparisons, and the setting itself, there’s a date that involves a screening of Rebel Without a Cause, and classics like Casablanca are mentioned. Attempts at referencing classic Hollywood aren’t new, but there’s something pure and decidedly not cynical about the way in which La La Land references classic Hollywood that’s refreshing.
La La Land is a decidedly old-school film, but one that shows that when done right, the musical still works. It’s thoroughly charming and magical, and one of the most delightful films of 2016.