A girl runs into a movie theater to find a boy. She’s late and the feature has already begun. There’s no guarantee her date is even here, but the girl sprints to the front of the room anyway. She stands in front of the screen, silhouetted by the bright white light coming from the projector, and stares out into the darkness, searching.
There he is. We get a shot of her expression the moment she spots him. At once she is surprised and happy and maybe a little bit scared by how much of both. The moving images of a love story stream across her face.
The last decade of film has given us countless meet-cutes, innumerable awkward first dates and an untold number of happily-ever-afters. But few of those couples had the staying power to land themselves in the upper echelon of cinematic twosomes, a space occupied only by pairs like Harry and Sally, Noah and Ally and Jack and Rose. Damien Chazelle’s new musical, La La Land, is the end of this drought, its stars the defining movie couple of a new generation.
They are Mia and Sebastian. Yes, the names could be better, but their story is near perfect. She’s an aspiring actress with dreams of the silver screen, he’s a jazz musician that won’t give up on a dying art form. They first meet in a traffic jam, next in a bar, then at a party. They keep meeting, soon by their own accord. They fall in love.
Like so many great musicals, there is one song at the heart of their romance— a single piano ballad with unimaginable power. Much like “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca, it carries both the main characters and the audience off to far-away places. At the screening I attended, during a tense scene late in the movie in which Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian approaches a piano, my guest whispered “don’t play it!” to herself— no doubt out of a fear that she wouldn’t be able to keep it together rather than an aversion to hearing it again.
This moment, and so many others (including the applause that came at the end of the night), is a testament to the power of a good musical, a power that by 2016 had been forgotten by many and never even encountered by others. Coming off of the success of the 2014 hit Whiplash, Chazelle had his pick of projects. His decision to create a full-scale original musical starring two of the biggest names in Hollywood (Gosling and the wonderful Emma Stone), was a big swing. A huge swing — so much so that even if the whole thing were to fall flat, you could still appreciate its ambition. Not to worry, that’s not the case here. Chazelle’s risk paid off. La La Land is a triumph.
There are a few seconds of disorientation, right at the beginning of the opening number, “Another Day of Sun.” Like I said, it’s been a while since we’ve had an original musical, and seeing a typical L.A. traffic scene turn into an all-out song and dance number takes a moment to get used to. But once the concept is embraced, the familiarity of it all is what carries you through. The music is beautifully crafted, from the grand set pieces to the quiet, emotional melodies. Stone and Gosling are a perfect pair, their chemistry from 2011’s Crazy Stupid Love having only grown stronger with time.
While the movie does feel in part like a love letter to the Hollywood musicals of the past—to Fred and Ginger and Gene Kelly and all that jazz—there are certainly imperfections. Not every dance step is timed perfectly and both Stone and Gosling aren’t exactly flawless singers. But this only serves to embolden the love story, adding a touch of authenticity to the movie’s over-arching surrealism.
With its retro feel, La La Land also makes the viewer appreciate aspects of film once marveled at and now overlooked, like color. The colors in this movie are so unexplainably pleasing. Not only is the plot of the movie based very much around dreams— Mia’s dreams of stardom, Seb’s dreams of jazz fame and their joint dream of happiness together— but it also looks and feels like a dream.
Early in their story, when the boy and the girl visit a planetarium, their feet leave the ground and they dance amongst the stars. Much like the singing at the start, it feels wrong for a second. But eventually you realize there’s nothing really wrong with it, because that’s the kind of thing that happens when you dream.