PLOT An original musical about two Los Angeles dreamers who fall in love.
CAST Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
RATED PG-13 (mild language)
PLAYING AT Union Square Stadium 14 and Lincoln Square 13 in Manhattan. Opens locally Dec. 16.
BOTTOM LINE Romantic, inventive, visually dazzling — and yet, Damien Chazelle’s ambitious movie promises slightly more than it delivers.
If you miss the big-screen spectacle that once made the movies the movies, then Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” may be your ticket. A rare original musical — one not based on a Broadway show — “La La Land” stars Emma Stone as Mia, an aspiring actress, and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, a jazz pianist, who fall in love while chasing their Hollywood dreams. A gorgeous swirl of color and sound surrounding two of our most charismatic stars, “La La Land” is an unabashedly romantic movie with a song in its heart and two MGM lions in its eyes.
“Do you think it’s too nostalgic?” Mia asks after Sebastian has read her one-woman play (although she’s clearly speaking to us as well). His response: “That’s the whole point!” There’s a problem with nostalgia, though: It only reminds you that the past is gone.
“La La Land” cleverly sets its old-fashioned stage with a modern-day Los Angeles traffic jam that turns into a horn-honking symphony with syncopated car-top dancing. It’s a boffo number (“Another Day of Sun”), but we’ll never see its like in the movie again. From that point on, “La La Land” belongs almost solely to Mia and Sebastian.
Theirs is a classic romance that begins as mutual loathing, then turns into head-over-heels love. Chazelle (“Whiplash”) dotes on his two stars, and for good reason: They’re great-looking, energetic and positively radiant with charm. As dancers, they’re not exactly Astaire-Rogers, but they gamely tackle Mandy Moore’s lively choreography and they mesh beautifully into the film’s vibrant, vivid landscape. Their airborne duet in the Griffith Observatory, which gives way to an Impressionist fantasia, is worth the price of admission.
And yet, “La La Land” has some glaring weaknesses. The music, composed by Justin Hurwitz with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, floats along beautifully but won’t ring in your ears after the closing credits. What’s more, “La La Land” is limited to just two characters, aside from a slick musician named Keith (a serviceable John Legend), who lures Sebastian away from pure jazz to hollow pop. The Gosling-Stone numbers are lovely, but they can also feel repetitive.
“La La Land” closes with such a visually dazzling and highly emotional finale that it’s easy to overlook the movie’s shortcomings. If “La La Land” wins the Academy Award for best picture, as widely expected, it will be as much for what the movie reminds us of as for what it actually is.
Rising name: Damien Chazelle
Damien Chazelle, the writer-director behind the Oscar front-runner “La La Land,” may not be a household name yet, but you’re sure to hear more about him as award season heats up. Here are four other movies in which you might have seen his name pop up.
GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH (2009) — Like “La La Land,” Chazelle’s directorial debut is also a musical — done in black and white — about a jazz trumpeter (Jason Palmer) and his search for true love.
GRAND PIANO (2013) — Chazelle penned the screenplay for this off-key drama about an emotionally unstable pianist (Elijah Wood) forced to perform at gunpoint by an enemy (John Cusack) who will shoot if one false note is played.
WHIPLASH (2014) — This best-picture contender earned Chazelle, who also directed, an Oscar nomination for his harrowing screenplay about a drummer pushed to the brink by his martinet of an instructor (Oscar winner J.K. Simmons).
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) — Chazelle was one of the screenwriters of this suspenseful thriller about a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) being kept in an underground shelter against her will by a loony (John Goodman) who insists that the world has been wiped out by a nuclear attack.
— Daniel Bubbeo