A version of this review ran when the movie opened October's Philadelphia Film Festival.
What would the world be like if everyone, every now and then, just broke into song?
Trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic? Climb out of the car, kick up your heels, belt out a tune.
Lonely on a dusky pier? Add lyrics to the melody you're whistling, and invite a passerby to join in a waltz as an invisible orchestra adds accompaniment.
The world is exactly like that in La La Land, Damien Chazelle's charming, transcendent movie musical -- a throwback to MGM song-and-dance classics (yes, it's in CinemaScope!) and, at the same time, a here-and-now love story where two talented people try to juggle a full-force romance and their follow-your-dream career ambitions.
La La Land, a leading contender for the best picture Oscar this year after cleaning up Sunday at the Critics' Choice Awards and in Golden Globe nominations Monday, stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as a pair of struggling Angelenos.
She's Mia, a would-be actress who serves lattes in a coffee shop on a studio backlot, doffing her apron to run to another humiliating audition. He's Sebastian, a diehard jazzbo reduced to playing yuletide ditties on the Steinway at a restaurant where the owner (a cameoing J.K. Simmons, the maniacal music prof of Chazelle's 2014 hit, Whiplash) threatens to fire him if he ever again dares to veer off into one of those moody, improvised numbers.
That's where Mia and Sebastian first encounter each other -- in that restaurant, in the balmy days of December in L.A. But it takes a while before they actually meet and talk, mocking each other's pitiful place in the showbiz food chain. They're at a party, and then they're leaving, strolling past a line of parked cars to find a bench overlooking a vast valley of lights.
"We've stumbled on a view / that's tailor-made for two," Gosling croons, Chet Baker-style, the two of them in complete accord on the subject of their ill-suitedness for one another. "What a waste of a lovely night," they harmonize, as Stone slips off her high heels and pulls on some wingtips. Wingtips with taps.
If you haven't succumbed to the joyous magic of La La Land by the end of the Fred-and-Ginger-flavored "A Lovely Night," well, then, pick up your Official Curmudgeon badge and head for the exit. Everyone else, stay put -- lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and composer Justin Hurwitz have plenty more where that came from. By the time Stone tries out the first tentative notes of "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)," the movie's final full-fledged production number, La La Land has taken us soaring through the starry skies of the Griffith Park planetarium, celebrated the magic of movies and movie gods long-gone (James Dean, Ingrid Bergman, Chaplin, Monroe), and delivered a passionate lecture on the alchemy, art, and essentialness of jazz.
Chazelle, a jazz drummer in high school (Whiplash was more than a tad autobiographical), clearly knows his stuff. Singin' in the Rain is saluted, An American in Paris is saluted. So, too, the lush, lushly colored The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, by French movie-musical man Jacques Demy.
And Chazelle expands and elaborates on themes he addressed in his micro-budgeted first feature, 2010's Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. In that one, a jazz trumpeter and a restless student/waitress sing and dance to an exuberant beat, caught up in the melodrama of a broken romance. The music (also by Hurwitz) swings, and so does the camera, handheld, with its black-and-white, French New Wavy energy and élan.
Stone and Gosling bring their star power -- and their shared experience on two previous collaborations -- to La La Land, amping up the wattage and the sense of anything-can-happen wonderment. Chazelle guides them along -- through the dance numbers, the snappy dialogue, through a smoke-alarm-punctuated candlelight dinner gone awry, through a John Legend-fronted concert teeming with fans, and an all-or-nothing one-woman show that Mia mounts to turn her career around. Some of it is wistful, some of it whimsical, but it's all wonderful, impossibly so.
Big post-screening musical production number, anyone?
La La Land
**** (Out of four stars)
Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Directed by Damien Chazelle, with music by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Distributed by Lionsgate.
Running time: 2 hours, 8 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, adult themes).