Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are going to the Oscars in 2017. And, fingers crossed, they’ll be singing and dancing.
The two are absolutely dazzling in their latest collaboration, La La Land. A gorgeous and magnificent homage to the golden age of Hollywood musicals in the 1950s, the film has the sheer power to make audiences laugh, weep and feel as if they can float on air. It premiered Monday, September 12, at the Toronto International Film Festival. (The release date is December 2.)
"La La Land" has a double meaning here, serving as both the oft-used nickname for the palm-tree and movie-star oasis that is Los Angeles and a usage of musical notes. Yes, this is a city of angels, in which people break into song as a natural reflex. Writer-director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) sets the tone in the opening scene as L.A. residents stuck in traffic on the freeway perform in a smashing, smiling number.
Close up on Mia (Stone), a barista on the Warner Bros. studio lot and aspiring actress. Every day, she looks out on the set once used in Casablanca and dreams of receiving that “You got the part!” phone call. She just can’t catch a break. (Though that “Dangerous Minds meets The O.C.” TV show callback seems promising, maybe?) She finds her equal in Sebastian (Gosling), an underachieving musician who longs to open up his own jazz club. He wants everyone to appreciate the dying musical genre as much as he does.
Mia and Sebastian have a few chance encounters before an official meet-cute at a party. They share an instant chemistry. One thing leads to another and the two fall in … in 99 percent of other movies, the rest of that sentence would be “bed.” In this kind of special film, they express their mutual attraction by flirtatiously tap dancing — as the city glows in the background. A loving, supportive romance follows, as does a hilarious Kenny G reference.
Just on looks and sound alone, the film could air on Turner Classic Movies tomorrow and not seem out of place. The production design is stunning, as a sea of bright colors bursts in every frame. In one early number, Mia and her female roommates each wear a bright hue as they prepare for a night on the town. (Stone opts for blue.) The visual of the girls dancing on the street together is striking, while the music is instantly hummable.
The talented Chazelle doesn’t settle for a breezy story in which his two leads waltz their way into the California sunset. He steeps his characters in real life, and in real life, things aren’t always as fantastical as they appear in the movies. Mia and Sebastian are both pursuing lifelong artistic endeavors, though they’re well aware that big success will probably doom the relationship. Even as they push each other creatively and cheer for each other (Sebastian inspires Mia to write a one-woman show; Mia devises a name for Sebastian’s club), they grapple with the give-and-take dynamic.
With Gosling and Stone in the lead roles, the couple’s chemistry takes on magical proportions. They don’t re-create that Dirty Dancing lift from Crazy Stupid Love — only the best scene in that whole movie — but they do move with that same light comedic touch. (Their duets are so charming that the actor’s less-than-stellar vocal stylings are forgiven.) Both stars, with four Oscar nominations between them, excel in their tender moments as well. Stone, in particular, is a revelation. Moonlighting on Broadway in Cabaret a few years back has paid off big time: She lights up the screen, notably in a heartbreaking solo number during one of her auditions. As she gazes at Gosling with those vivid big eyes, she truly embodies the look of an old-school starlet.
Hollywood doesn’t make these kinds of movies anymore. But now that franchise sequels-and-spinoff fatigue has set in, here’s hoping more original charmers are on the way. If so, that would be music to everyone’s ears.