‘La La Land’ review: Stunning, earnest throwback musical is unabashed escapist joy
In the race for best film of 2016, every other film this year is competing for second place. “La La Land” (screening during AFI FEST 2016, opens in select cities Dec. 9 and in theaters nationwide Dec. 16) is pure magical delight that entertains on every cinematic level.
The film opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” immediately and clearly establishes the film’s tone and tenor. It finds improbable exuberance in the misery of an L.A. traffic jam, with dozens of log-jammed drivers dancing and bouncing between their modest cars. And it’s all the more impressive when the realization sets in that the entire rousing, six-minute sequence is executed in a single, unbroken take, resulting in an unapologetically joyous and dizzying spectacle.
With the intense 2014 drama “Whiplash” and this magical film under his belt, writer-director Damien Chazelle has taken his place among today’s great filmmakers. He has crafted an enthusiastically nostalgic homage to the classics – with hints of ‘Singing in the Rain” and “An American in Paris” – that remains happily grounded a non-idealized, smog-filled Los Angeles overrun with too many Priuses. While Chazelle presents the non-pristine lived-in city of Los Angeles traffic jams, dust covered dashboards and all, he conversely populates the city with residents donning vibrant primary colors. It is a reminder that Los Angeles remains a city of dreams and aspirations.
“La La Land” finds new ways to amaze with each successive musical sequence – from its stunning large-scale song-and-dance numbers to its equally stirring, music-only planetarium sequence. If the intro sequence is an electrifying marvel, then its final sequence is cinematic masterstroke.
The first three-quarters alone cement “La La Land” as one of the great movie musicals of all time – but its breathtaking final act is storytelling brilliance. This incredible sequence somehow hits almost every emotion possible – without requiring a single song lyric. This final chapter elevates the fun and entertaining musical to level of the deeply moving nature of film. Stone dazzles as a struggling actress-barista serving coffee to big Hollywood stars while she runs from one failed audition to the next. Chazelle’s screenplay gives Stone a genuine chance to shine with a heartfelt, panged and plucky character who trudges toward her dreams with hope. She has a number of Award Season-caliber moments that are capped with her amazing “The Fools Who Dream” solo.
This is a soaring and exuberant experience that must be enjoyed on the big screen. If ever there was a film that demanded to be experienced in a theater, it is “La La Land.” This is the purest form of substantial and moving escapism the world needs right now (perhaps now more than ever).
Final verdict: “La La Land” is not merely one of the best musicals of the year – it’s one of the very best films in years. Hopes and dreams and love and nostalgia and passion are all wrapped in this valentine to Los Angeles, cinema, jazz & musicals.
“La La Land” opens in limited release on Dec. 9 and opens nationwide Dec. 16. This romance-drama musical is rated PG-13 for some language and has a running time of 128 minutes.