We've all seen films where star-crossed lovers ride the rollercoaster of romance. And we've all seen films where aspiring artists weather the ups and downs of chasing their dreams. Starting with a series of awkward encounters, and focusing on a struggling actress and a jazz pianist, La La Land offers both. But the thing that makes writer-director Damien Chazelle's musical follow-up to his breakout hit Whiplash shine isn't the familiar path it wanders down. Rather, it's how it takes audiences on that journey.
When Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) first meet on the streets of Los Angeles, they're hurling ire at each other in traffic. When they finally get the chance to chat at a party, there's teasing in the air, with a romantic connection soon blooming. As their relationship continues, Sebastian inspires Mia to break free of the soul-crushing audition cycle and write her own one-woman play. In turn, he keeps working towards opening a jazz club, while also taking up the opportunity to pursue something more lucrative and concrete.
So far, so straightforward. But all isn't fair when you're simultaneously trying to find love, seek your chosen career and carve out a fulfilling life. While it might not feature J.K. Simmons screaming "not my tempo" a la Whiplash, Chazelle's latest effort certainly doesn't shy away from the costs and consequences of trying to succeed. Nor does the film pull its punches when personal and professional matters fail to align. Instead, erupting with gorgeous colour and energetic choreography one moment, then taking time to brood and contemplate the next, La La Land offers a delicate balance of dreaming big while realising that not every wish can or will come true.
Moreover, it does so while celebrating the Hollywood musical genre, and at the same time fashioning its trademarks and style into something bittersweet and melancholy. The traditions of grand song-and-dance flicks gets their time in the spotlight, though in truth they're only one part of the story. As characters shuffle through the streets and float through the air in '50s-style numbers, churn out '80s covers, play contemporary jazz, and croon mournful ballads, audiences will find themselves swept along the entire musical and emotional spectrum.
For that, a fair share of the credit should go to co-stars Stone and Gosling. In their third on-screen pairing after Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, both are in stellar, swoon-worthy form. Whether they're belting out a tune, tapping their toes, or quietly expressing the feelings that lurk beneath, the duo navigate the melange that comprises La La Land with the same flair and thoughtfulness as their director, while sharing in his not-to-be-underestimated task. After all, at the heart of the luminous and lively film sits a stark truth: fantasising is easy, but embracing reality is hard. It's no surprise that the movie that results is clearly crafted with this in mind as it soars high but dives deep, evoking affectionate wonder, heartfelt tears and the knowledge that life usually lurks somewhere in between.