Even self-confessed enemies of the musical genre will probably find themselves struggling to deflect the charm offensive from Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and boy wonder director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) in this stupendously performed and directed love letter to the G0lden Age of Hollywood.
In Los Angeles, Mia (Emma Stone) is a starry-eyed, ditzy aspiring actress, while Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a brilliant jazz pianist struggling to make ends meet. When the two enjoy a chance encounter, a spark erupts almost immediately, but as they for one another, they must also consider the possibility of their respective callings in life pulling them apart.
As far as musicals go, this one goes down like a smooth glass of Vermouth because writer-director Chazelle perfectly balances the film’s tone between frothy homage to classic Hollywood and a genuinely well-developed relationship drama. A frequent downfall of musicals is that the dialogue-centric scenes simply can’t compare to the songs, but here, the chatter is as entertaining, if not more so, than the elaborate ditties.
It’s fair to say that not every song here is a masterpiece and you’ll need a certain enjoyment of campy musical tropes to appreciate it all, but there are enough legitimately brilliant sequences to balance things out, with Chazelle employing daring long takes and wild pans and cranes that give his two delightful stars one hell of an acting workout.
The toe-tapping quality melds extremely well with an irresistably hilarious two-hander between Gosling and Stone, unsurprising given the pair’s prior sizzling chemistry in 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love. All the more credit to Chazelle, however, for daring to explore the genuine complexities of contemporary relationships when he could so easily have leaned back on feel-good Hollywood melodrama and probably achieved a similar level of audience approval. Instead, he dares to take it further, especially in an astonishing final sequence that echos the tripwire tension of his debut feature (difficult though that might be to believe).
Ultimately it’s a triumph of incredible style and pitch-perfect performance more than it is a celebration of water-tight narrative – though it does prove surprisingly involving all the same – but what style and what performances. Widely touted as the current Best Picture Oscar front-runner, it’s easy to see why with such an effervescent, infectiously entertaining and crowd-pleasing end product, one that could deservedly win Chazelle a Best Director gong for his utterly scintillating work.
La La Land is in US cinemas December 9th (limited) and UK cinemas January 13th