La La Land (12A, 132 mins, ★★★★)
In his big-screen musical La La Land, Damien Chazelle does for Los Angeles what Woody Allen did for New York: he strings the city with fairy lights and tinkling pianos and the dogged possibility of romance. And just as infatuation can bathe a lover’s unique flaws in charm, so even a traffic gridlock on the LA freeway becomes the scene of an opening mass dance number to the buoyant strains of Another Day of Sun.
Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) first meet as irritated drivers amid this throb of car engines. Their hostility abates with each chance encounter until finally they stand together looking down on the city sunset while Seb sings lines such as: “This could never be / You’re not the type for me” and Mia counters: “You’re right, I’d never fall for you at all” – lines which, in the proud tradition of screen musicals, we know are fated to mean just the opposite.
Both characters, in different ways, crave a vision of artistic purity curated from bygone glories. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who thrills to old movies but whose auditions end in crass dismissals. Seb (Ryan Gosling) is an impoverished jazz pianist who is mostly paid to pay the kind of music he dislikes. La La Land – with its heady wealth of references, from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to Singin’ in the Rain – is a film about films, but also the way in which the illusions that lit up Hollywood can still stir the soul. Along the way, artifice and reality blur: Mia works in a coffee shop that serves a studio lot, and in one scene she and Seb wander wistfully through its painted architecture, pausing reverentially to watch two famous actors film a scene (here Gosling and Stone, among the biggest stars of their generation, beguile us by travelling back to the time when they too were pressing their noses up against the window of success).
In clumsy hands, the weight of allusion in such a film could serve to sink it. But Chazelle steers it with joyous confidence, and both lead actors have the emotional sincerity to make us believe that – somewhere beneath the tap-dances, clever songs and knowing stardust – two human hearts are beating faster than any mere homage has a right to.
Mia and Seb urge one another to pursue their passions, which lead them in different directions. In essence, it’s a story of a love preserved intact precisely by being lost: after all, nothing keeps like nostalgia. In an earlier film, Derek Cianfrance’s brilliantly sad Blue Valentine, Gosling’s character pursued romance into marriage and fatherhood and watched as it all fell apart. La La Land, spinning lightly through its indestructible dreams, knows when to leave well alone.