If you’ve ever been caught in stand-still traffic on the way to work, with no possibility of movement on the horizon, you’ve likely fantasized about simply abandoning your vehicle right there on the highway and walking. In the audacious opening sequence of Damien Chazelle’s swooningly romantic La La Land, the drivers trapped on the ramp connecting Interstate 105 to the 110 in Los Angeles do exactly that, but their next actions are even more unexpected: One by one, they begin to sing, then dance, until every last person has shed their seat belts to form a limber chorus line freed from the shackles of commuter frustration. Over the next few minutes, Chazelle will take your breath away as he mounts a jaw-dropping production number that will set your toes tapping. Even if you’re not a fan of movie musicals, he’ll quite possibly make a convert out of you.
Providence-born, Harvard-educated writer/director Chazelle, a 31-year-old who broke through two years ago with Whiplash, another picture built on a backbone of jazz-inflected beats, is smart to immediately announce what you’ll be in for with this bravura calling card that sets the tone for the two hours to come. While Whiplash turned on the intense battle of wills between Miles Teller’s drum student and J.K. Simmons’ drill sergeant-like instructor, here Chazelle has crafted something closer in spirit to his little-seen 2009 debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a black-and-white, Boston- and New York-set romantic charmer that fused Hollywood musical traditions with a verite style that would have made the late, great John Cassavetes proud.
Not content to simply repeat himself, Chazelle immediately and slyly announces his grander ambitions for La La Land when the boxy, black-and-white frame that first appears in the center of the screen expands outward to reveal a wildly colorful, ultra-widescreen image that’s been overlaid with the classic CinemaScope logo, denoting films that that have been lensed in the 2.55:1 aspect ratio. Taking advantage of the extra real estate afforded them by this format, Chazelle and ace cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle) push their incredibly agile camera in and around the performers who leap and twirl over their cars’ hoods in one long, seemingly unbroken take (which actually entailed a weekend of location shooting on the real I-105).
Composer Justin Hurwitz, who’s scored all three of Chazelle’s films, provides stellar accompaniment as the singers and dancers celebrate “Another Day of Sun” via catchy lyrics (courtesy of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). But it’s actually winter in LA, and the warmth of this sequence ends with a sudden chill when the big-band beats cede and the camera settles on the raised middle finger of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone). She’s been too distracted running lines in her Prius en route to an audition to notice Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), the jazz pianist who’s been fruitlessly trying to pass her in the traffic jam. In what will become a running gag, “Seb” loudly honks the horn of his convertible to get Mia’s attention, prompting her to flip him off.
This is the first time Seb and Mia will cross paths, but it certainly won’t be the last. As winter gives way to spring, they continue to drift into each other’s orbit, unable to escape love’s gravitational pull during a series of song-and-dance numbers (many of them exquisitely captured during the magic hour by Sandgren) that culminate with the duo quite literally lifting into orbit, dancing among the stars projected on the Griffith Observatory’s Art Deco dome in Los Feliz.
To casual viewers, it might appear that Chazelle shares their appreciation for the MGM musicals of the ’40s and ’50s, but those with a more expansive cinematic palate may recognize that his heart beats with a passion for the ’60s confections of French director Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand, whose best-known collaboration remains 1964’s plaintive romantic drama The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Chazelle draws even greater inspiration from Demy and Legrand’s lighter, later effort, 1967’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, from its bright primary colors to its emphasis on jazz and large-scale dance numbers.
Which isn’t to say that he leaves the magic of Hollywood behind altogether. While Legrand was fond of moving his musicals forward almost exclusively through song, Chazelle transitions his actors from dialogue to singing and dancing when it feels organic and natural, like in, say, 1951’s An American in Paris—and the results are electric. If you’re a fan of Vincente Minnelli’s multiple Oscar winner, then you’ll absolutely recognize echoes of that film’s climactic flight of fancy between Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in Chazelle’s masterful staging of a dream-like dancing duet.
This scene benefits hugely from the preceding two hours we’ve spent getting to know Seb and Mia, characters who are fully formed, warts and all, thanks to the sympathetic and heartbreaking performances of Gosling and, especially, Stone. Working together for the third time (after 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love and 2013’s Gangster Squad) has clearly contributed to a winning chemistry that more than makes up for the creaky old trope—boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries to win her back—that plays out across the film’s four seasons. Despite this narrative familiarity, the emotional payoff Chazelle builds toward is huge, and as Stone plaintively croons in one of this tale of love and sacrifice’s lovely songs, it will speak volumes to “the ones who dream.”
La La Land ****
Starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, Damon Gupton, Terry Walters, Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno, Jessica Rothe, Finn Wittrock, Josh Pence, Nicole Coulon and J.K. Simmons. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square and in the suburbs.