Fade in to a typically stalled Los Angeles freeway, each car and driver tuned into different music and ambitions. Out of diverse noise, one salsa beat and its listener steps up, singing about another day of sun and striving.
Within seconds, a traffic jam explodes into a jam in traffic, with cars used as dance floors and dozens of strangers intuitively, incredibly knowing all the lyrics and dazzling moves.
Welcome to La La Land, population whoever loves movie musicals and believed them extinct.
Not a jukebox musical like Pitch Perfect or a Broadway obligation like Les Miserables, but an honest-to-Vincente Minnelli blend of original music and golden age Hollywood presentation. La La Land is a trove of references to musical milestones, not derivative but truly inspired. A more joyful movie for grown-ups can't be found this season.
That traffic jam includes Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actor on her way to another disappointing audition. The driver she flipped off is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist and purist on his way to work playing schmaltz for diners. They'll meet rudely twice again before falling in love, taking viewers with them.
That's the plot of La La Land in a deceptive nutshell. What Damien Chazelle's movie lacks in narrative depth it repays tenfold in exuberance and style. What were many musicals of the 1940s and '50s besides boy-meets-girl flights of fantasy? What matters is personality, of the lovers in question and how they're framed. La La Land excels on both counts.
Stone is a more polished musical performer than Gosling, clear voiced and persuasively selling a lyrics' message. Her climactic showcase Audition (The Fools Who Dream) soars on whispers, her girls-night-out anthem Someone in the Crowd on sashaying spirit. Light on her feet, those blue eyes gleaming, Stone lays down a performance easy to adore.
Gosling's voice is rougher, slightly off-key, a sense of realism that golden age musicals wouldn't permit in leading men. As a dancer, he's more than capable. But watch his hands during the piano sequences. You don't see telltale camera angles or close-ups of someone else's hands tickling the keys. Gosling's piano training enables a terrific finger-synch performance, one of the most convincing ever.
Chazelle drapes this charismatic pair in primary colors and a lighting scheme deftly reflecting what Mia and Sebastian are feeling, a mood ring movie of sorts.
Dramatic musical numbers like Audition or Sebastian's insubordinate version of Deck the Halls are shrouded in blues, a single spotlight on the artist making viewers lean in. Street lights become romantic beacons; a planetarium lifts lovers toward artificial stars. This movie is flat-out gorgeous to observe and equally easy on the ears, with Justin Hurwitz composing a score featuring a half dozen original songs.
La La Land hits a late speed bump when Chazelle briefly turns away from the musical form serving so well, a stretch when John Legend's Start a Fire is the only song but that's a concert scene, not magical realism like before. Mia and Sebastian's relationship must get rocky at some point, so a song or two expressing those issues would be welcome.
But who can complain about not enough when a movie delivers so much? La La Land slapped a smile on my face during that traffic jam that barely dimmed for two hours. Chazelle revitalizes not only a genre but an optimism coming in handy now. La La Land is the movie we didn't know we needed until it arrived.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.