Damien Chazelle heard the call: "Make musicals great again." And he's responds bigly with "La La Land," his dazzling display of spectacle and heart that will lock him up a front-row seat at the Oscars. It's so good, it's hard to know where to begin: The swoon-worthy pairing of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as star-crossed Los Angelenos dreaming of stardom? The terrific original songs and score by Justin Hurwitz? The high-flying choreography by Mandy Moore? The movie's gorgeous, eye-popping look courtesy of production designer David Wasco, costume designer Mary Zophres and cinematographer Linus Sandgren? Or how about Chazelle's writing?
Yes. It all begins with the script, and Chazelle has topped even his own Oscar-nominated "Whiplash" with a bittersweet love story doubling as a giant throbbing valentine to the golden age of Hollywood. Offering homages to everything from "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" to an "An American in Paris," Chazelle instantly takes us back to the days of Kelly, Astaire and Cyd Charisse, when feats -- and feet -- defied the laws of gravity, soaring to the stars and landing with the slow fluttering grace of a feather. Then there's Los Angeles, the La La of the title, a city of magic and possibility that Chazelle renders rapturously through a Technicolor lens.
Like an impressionist, the native Rhode Islander paints with a dream-like splash of ethereal hues so beautiful they're not of this world. It's almost ghostly, as if the spirit of Vincente Minnelli has risen and possessed Chazelle's soul. Yet, "La La Land" is completely his own, a unique mash-up of musicals past, present and -- hopefully -- future that shrewdly balances the surreal artifice of old with the hard realities of a modern world where dreams are easily crushed.
Since Los Angeles is the epicenter of these shattered hopes and ideals, Chazelle takes full advantage by making the city as essential and dynamic as his two 100-watt stars. And what says L.A. more than its vast network of curlicue freeways? That's where "La La Land" begins; in the middle of a massive traffic jam. Drivers grow impatient, but instead of fuming and laying on their horns, one by one they exit their chariots of steel and shake their booties to the infectious strains of "Another Day of Sun," a song that's both a celebration and a lament for a citizenry that rarely sees a cloud.
Littered among these dancing fools are a frustrated jazz musician and an aspiring starlet, both of whom have come to L.A. to worship at the Mecca of their crafts. But this is no meet-cute; in fact, Gosling's Sebastian first greets Stone's Mia with a raised middle finger. They will randomly cross paths twice more, most memorably at a pool party in the Hollywood Hills, where Mia shouts out an outrageous request to the band Sebastian is grudgingly sitting in with on keyboards. She wants to hear the Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran." You might as well have asked to hear "The Macarana," given the painful expression on Sebastian's face. But he grins and bears it. But in that moment, love blooms and we're whisked off on a high-flying, toe-tapping courtship that will take them from the lows of subterranean music clubs to the heights of the Griffith Observatory.
And with each expertly crafted scene we also get a little piece of nostalgia, like Mia working between auditions in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, straight across from a set used in "Casablanca." Or Sebastian selling out on his purist principles by joining a pop band led by John Legend's Keith, and looking as if he's sacrificed his soul like Joe Hardy in "Damn Yankees." There's also an "Annie Hall" vibe at the film's core about artists being torn between their love for what they do and their love for each other.
Dramatic conflict ensues, and that's what makes "La La Land" so special. Yes, it's funny and features spectacular acting, singing and dancing, but there's also something deep and meaningful at stake for both Mia and Sebastian. Chazelle draws us deep into their lives, ambitions and bitter disappointments. And when it comes time to choose where they go next in the film's mind-blowing finale, you're on the edge of your seat praying they'll find a way to make their relationship work.
A lot of that is due to the writing, especially in the way Sebastian's fight to keep jazz pure parallels Chazelle's fight to preserve the legacy of classic musicals. But it's the undeniable chemistry Gosling and Stone generate that makes the movie sing. After seeing them together here, and in "Crazy Stupid Love," they have the potential to be their generation's Tracy and Hepburn. That's how prodigious they are together, knowing and anticipating each other's every move. They're simpatico, and we're utterly mesmerized. And moved, really moved; like use-a-whole-box-of-Kleenex moved.
We're also awed. Awed by the power and enchantment of movies; and awed by the talent of a 31-year-old kid's ability to conceive, construct and package a musical this ambitious and revolutionary. And we're in love with the songs, particularly the beautifully mournful "City of Stars," a tune that's pleasantly taken up residence in my head for weeks since I saw the movie. If it doesn't win best song at the Oscars, I will not concede, nor will I back off my contention that the system is rigged. It's the same for the film. How can it not win? It's the embodiment of a pair of industries -- movies and music -- the voters reverently adore. It's also new, it's different and it's inventive. You'll laugh, you'll cry and when it's all over, you'll simply go WOW.
"La La Land"
Cast includes Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt and J.K. Simmons.
(PG-13 for some language.)