The smiles start almost immediately, with a CinemaScope gag in the opening credits that lets us know we are in for something historic, nostalgic and fun. The smile grows wider during the opening sequence, a jaw-dropping musical number set in and around a Los Angeles traffic jam that will be studied by film students for years so they can deduce how director Damien Chazelle pulled off such a magical trick. And now, weeks after seeing La La Land, as I sit down to tell you why it's so special, the smile remains, firmly in place, the result of this spectacular, breathtaking, pulse-racing work of pop art.
A common nickname for Los Angeles, La La Land celebrates the denizens of the city of angels, specifically two restless and creative souls who try to make a relationship spark while also chasing their respective dreams. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who works the coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot because she enjoys being surrounded by the Hollywood system. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), meanwhile, is a jazz pianist with a plan to open a traditional jazz club, because he fears the genre he cherishes is slowly dying. This luminescent pair puts their career paths on pause to see if love is possible in this sun-drenched "paradise." Spoiler alert: It's really hard.
There's an early visual joke in La La Land, as Mia leaves an audition, that suggests her red hair and pale skin make her one of a thousand similar artists in a city choking on Hollywood hopefuls. The crowd easily swallows her up, and she all but disappears. In contrast, La La Land is anything but routine. It's a bold standout and a one-of-a-kind contemporary musical that builds on the momentum Chazelle created with his equally dazzling Whiplash.
The director blends the hazy glow of Old Hollywood allure with the depressing grind of making it modern show business, and he improves his already electric skill and precision at marrying striking visual imagery with snare-tight musical cues and edits. La La Land opens like gangbusters, and builds to a magnificent conclusion that should lock up its spot in the annual awards race.
Not that La La Land can maintain that intense and upbeat narrative momentum. It can't, and the movie lulls as Mia and Sebastian maneuver common obstacles of the heart. One of them experiences more success than the other, but with that success comes artistic compromise. The beats of their journey will pay off, eventually, but the movie lingers a bit over moments you won't realize are important until later. There also are insightful conversations -- tied to jazz, but applicable to the film industry -- about being "revolutionary" versus maintaining a "traditionalism," of holding on to the past versus building toward the future. Taken in that context, Chazelle's La La Land shows that musicals, once as common as a Hollywood Western, do NOT have to be relics when they are as innovative, energetic and invigorating as this.
La La Land won most of its battles in the casting department. Sheer talent and invaluable chemistry bleed out of every pore of Stone and Gosling. The former, in particular, radiates in every scene, bursting like a thousand firecrackers in the night sky on the Fourth of July. This is a career-best moment for Stone, who is grounded and spunky as the scrappy aspiring actress, then graceful and poised as Mia continues her journey. That Gosling is able to match her every step of the way only solidifies the best parts of this beautiful, inspirational night at the movies.
La La Land has a fantastic chance at winning several top Oscars -- not because it's the year's best movie (though it certainly is ONE of the finest films release this year), but because it's the most "MOVIE" movie you'll see in 2016, and the Academy tends to reward what it adores and understands. Itself. This is a loving ode, a glorious tribute, and a buoyant sing-along song aimed at the creators who occupy Los Angeles' streets, beaches, coffee shops, clubs, dance studios and pool parties.
This movie will break 1,000 hearts, as young hopefuls take its cue and dash to the West Coast in hopes of striking it big. But La La Land is a vital and necessary reminder, to all of us sitting in the theater staring up at that glowing screen, to never stop chasing our dreams -- no matter how difficult the journey may seem -- because the pain is only part of the process.
Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. He's frequently found on Twitter at @Sean_OConnell. ReelBlend cohost. A movie junkie who's Infatuated with comic-book films. Helped get the Snyder Cut released, then wrote a book about it.