A loving homage to Old Hollywood musicals, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is like a crisp sip of Champagne, a charming throwback that’s neither revolutionary nor fully developed. But I still enjoyed it. It’s a contemporary twist on an old-fashioned: the two main characters carry out a screen romance pieced together from countless classic films. Chazelle has a rose-colored take on Los Angeles; people sing in traffic jams about how great the sun is, and everyone is young and attractive and eager to hoof it.
But at times, La La Land really uses its musical influences to its advantage. There are three excellent scenes I want to look at below, where the movie momentarily lifts off into a higher realm. (Spoilers ahead.)
Early on, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling wander the streets at sunset, trying to find their cars after leaving a party. It’s a meet-cute; we know they’re going to fall in love in front of us. So as they linger before a wide panorama of L.A. waking up, the sensuous view entices them to flirt and sing and (how could they not?) set their feet to dancing.
As Gosling sings, “This could never be. You’re not the type for me,” Stone scoffs in response. “I think I’ll be the one to make that call,” she sings, and he comes back with, “But you’ll call.”
The lyrics (by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) are playful in a demure 1940s way: “And maybe this appeals / To someone not in heels / Or to any girl that feels / There’s some chance for romance.” And the camera pulls back in uninterrupted long shot, so we can see them dance from head to toe. It’s Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds waltzing through the Singin’ in the Rain studio, or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers stealing the dance floor in Swing Time. Stone and Gosling aren’t singers or dancers by trade, but they are magnetic. They are stars, which is basically all a love story like this really needs.
Though she’s left Gosling and the acting business behind, he summons her back when an important casting director calls to meet her. Unlike all the rest, the casting woman makes her feel at ease when she enters the room. All the woman asks for is a story, any story to tell.
It starts as dialogue: Emma Stone tells the room about her free-spirited aunt who jumped into the Seine. Then her speech eases into song, and a piano quietly enters. Like magic, we’re back into Chazelle’s fantasy world, and Stone comes to what feels like the movie’s credo:
Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make
Some of La La Land‘s lyrics, like the movie around them, can be nonspecific, like “City of Stars” and the L.A. freeway opener “Another Day of Sun.” And sure, one couplet in this audition is too cute: “The water was freezing / She spent a month sneezing.” But mostly, “The Fools Who Dream” feels perfect for Stone’s still-yearning ingenue, and we watch as her faith in second chances is restored. She follows the footsteps left by Liza Minnelli signing off in “Cabaret,” or Barbra Streisand at the end of Funny Girl and A Star Is Born. This is a final declaration of hope and grit and determination, a performance directed to herself as much as to her rapt audience. And she nails it.
3. The final scene
You might roll your eyes when we flash forward five years. Stone is the powerful actress she aspired to be; Gosling’s opened the jazz club he envisioned. But in an unexpected ending, Chazelle explores what if they’d stayed with each other. From this notion—is it his or hers?—an eight-minute dream sequence explodes, set against sets and costumes modeled on a kaleidoscope of classic films. It’s more surreal and movie-musical-like than the movie we’ve been watching so far. The lush orchestra and chorus swell as dream versions of our lovers dance through the last five years—this time as partners.
The dream ballet returns to Gosling at the piano, while Stone watches from the audience, and we wonder if she chose correctly. It’s a surprisingly bittersweet coda. In a movie that professes dreams can come true, this epilogue—a touching pastiche of every musical romance—finally provides the emotional connection we’ve waited for.