There are few cities in America quite as depressing on film as Los Angeles, California. The place best known for film noir has given its fair share of famous sad endings including in Chinatown where things end horribly, ending with the line "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." It's the land of disaster despite bordering the land of glitz and glam. There are few places deserving of a modern musical quite like L.A., especially in a year that many would consider depressing. Yet it doesn't take long for director Damien Chazelle to invade the city of opportunity and turn one of the most dreaded activities - rush hour traffic - into the elaborate song and dance number "Just Another Day of Sun." Before the number is halfway through, it will be hard to believe that this is the land that's inspired misery. In fact, it's the land of opportunity, and something that La La Land takes full advantage of in glorious technical detail that reminds you that films could be fun and that musicals aren't just silly; they're cathartic experiences.
The first thing that's apparent about La La Land is that it enjoys being a film, neither fully existing in fantasy or reality. Simple actions such as getting ready for a night on the town are given elaborate dance choreography with people dancing in gorgeous bright gowns. The camera sweeps around corner, taking full advantage of every possible angle. Solos are shot through spotlights that artistically black out everything else. This is most apparent in Emma Stone's heart wrenching "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)" as a casting call for the aspiring actress turns into a mesmerizing story told through pitch blackness as the camera zooms around the room. You'll be forgiven for forgetting that she's standing in front of a judging audience. The moment that plays like Liza Minnelli's finale in Cabaret is expertly shot with simple techniques that not only show that Chazelle is close to being the jazz-obsessed second coming of Stanley Donen, but that musicals have the power to be visceral journeys into self-discovery.
He does this time and again; creating a luscious landscape that will satisfy audiences who aren't familiar with the old MGM musicals Chazelle likely watched for inspiration. All of the hits are there. "A Lovely Night" pits Stone and jazz musician Ryan Gosling into a Mark Sandrich-style number with lovely and comical dancing reminiscent of Top Hat. There's even two extended dance numbers that may seem superfluous, but are gorgeous journeys into the potential of art. In one such case, it finally gives The Griffith Observatory its first iconic cinematic use since Rebel Without a Cause. The film wears its influences on its sleeves, but it rarely uses them in obnoxious fashion. This is a story about compromising old beliefs with new ideas to create something beautiful. It doesn't always go well, but it's the chance you have to take. Chazelle does it with breathtaking efficiency by borrowing for movie musical masters while using every potential technical advancement to make a film that answers the question "What if movie musicals never stopped being successful?"
The film's core is a bit disarming for those only expecting a good time. Following the one-two punch of "Another Day of Sun" and "Someone in the Crowd," the film begins to open up its box of defeats. Gosling loses his piano bar gig and Stone continues to fail at movie auditions. The desire to follow the dreams begins to feel like an insecurity. While this is happening, the city of Los Angeles is almost decaying around them as a new generation takes over. At one point the two go to see Rebel Without a Cause only to have the film print tear during a moment where Gosling and Stone are in a heated passion. By the end of the film the theater is closed. While the town has history, it also has commerce to worry about, leaving Gosling to have to contemplate what the value of his art really is. While he claims to not care, the financial strains he faces make him realize just how much he does.
Yet the fantasy is marvelous as Gosling is lead around a studio back lot by Stone, who works at a nearby coffee shop. It's so wonderful and full of life with the artifice of grandeur distilled in front of a camera. The film soon becomes dueling conflicts between reality and fantasy; the old and new; passion and necessity. Even if the film has a lot of love for 1950's movie musicals, it has a serious drama at the center that develops beautifully. Neither element is sacrificed and may make the final half a bit melancholic for some viewers. However, it's an arguably optimistic story about following dreams and compromising to reach your full potential. The opening song may suggest a tourist-worthy message of coming to L.A. to achieve your dreams, but you'll have to be ready to fight for them. You have to be ready to play A Flock of Seagulls at a backyard party.
Considering how stagnant the movie musical genre is, it's almost too easy to love this film for doing it better and more creatively than any film so far in the 21st century. However, it manages to be more than a gimmick. Gosling and Stone have sizzling chemistry that proves that there are movie stars like Gene Kelly still out there. They just need the perfect vehicles. La La Land is the upbeat story that this year needs, and one that proves that musicals can be self-conscious without sacrificing merit. Along with Whiplash, Chazelle has proven to be a master of direction with an energy to make the silent moments speak bigger volumes. This is a film that defines the big screen and should make everyone who buys a ticket envious of generations past who got to see films like this a few times a year. Now we're lucky to get it once every few, let alone with such a great soundtrack. One can only hope that this sparks a revolution and that this level of artistry could be brought back to film.