Director Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” is the perfect marriage of style and story, an old-fashioned musical about the ups and downs of a love story that struggles to stay in tempo. It’s also a love letter to the city where it’s set, and the unabashed dreamers who inhabit the environs of Los Angeles.
“La La Land,” which opens Saturday night, is a meticulously crafted and choreographed musical, and Chazelle pulls out every trick in the book, from the Cinemascope placard that opens the film, to camera irises transitioning in and out of scenes, to a culminating dream ballet that rivals “An American in Paris.” There’s irony in the notion that an independent film would borrow so heavily from the style of a classical Hollywood studio musical, and that it feels so radical in doing so.
There’s an exhilarating energy that whisks the film along, from the meet-cute during a traffic jam on the freeway that breaks out into a soaring dance number. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress, while Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz-obsessed pianist. They can’t stop running into each other around town, and when they finally connect during a screening of “Rebel Without a Cause,” everything seems to fall into place.
But they find themselves only in step for a time. With Sebastian on tour with his new band, and Mia pouring herself into her one-woman show, they are pulled in different directions. Despite their obvious passion, can they make it work?
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The choreography of cameras, bodies, sets and editing is so carefully crafted that “La La Land” can feel like a fluffy celebration of style over substance. But the last five minutes of the film — a nostalgic “what if” fantasy — are so thrillingly emotional that it more than earns the two-hour lead in.
Stone is the heart of the film, the dogged dreamer who turns away from her passion when it hurts too much, but secretly never stops hoping. There are shades of an over-the-top hamminess in her performance, but it almost works for the character. Gosling is a suave and sophisticated partner, soft-shoeing in spats.
As a candy-hued valentine to Los Angeles, “La La Land” is both a crowd-pleaser and a locals-only inside joke — title cards announce the seasons, since we’d never be able to discern them by the perpetually sunny skies. But it’s universal in its themes of love, loss and ambition, and ultimately, a toast to the ones who dream.
‘La La Land’
Opens Dec. 24. Rated PG-13 for some language. 2:08. Fayette Mall.