The city of Los Angeles is home to a million stories, all of them different, many of them sad. They don’t always start out that way. Most arrive in the City of Stars as eager young dreamers with their heads in the clouds and their eyes on the prize. Fame and fortune are the goals, and though most fall short, people keep coming and trying to breakthrough. Not everyone can fail, right?

That’s what Mia (Emma Stone) is counting on as she daydreams of a life as a movie star while toiling away as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot. Though her bank account is poor and her prospects are negligible, she lives in a Jerry Lewis/Jacques Demy-inspired candy-colored apartment with three other girls as she goes on audition after audition after audition. Someday she might strike it rich, but right now, the only currency Mia is flush with is hope.

Financially, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is in a similar state but with a stricter sense of aesthetics. As a devoted jazz musician, Sebastian has the talent and the drive, but his attitude has kept him from crossing over to the big time. When you are a success, you can be the biggest pain in the ass around, but not until you sell a few albums.

When Sebastian and Mia’s paths cross, there are the usual barbs of romantic comedy, but they quickly soften with a song and dance number. A lot of La La Land is a song and dance number, and each one acts like a shot of energy to an already kinetic screenplay. Writer/director Damien Chazelle mines a plethora of Hollywood history, and some French New Wave, to bring about a musical that is both enchanted by the dreams of Los Angeles—a factory that produces fantasy on multiple levels—and the reality that crushes them left and right.

And while those song and dance numbers are memorable (composed by Justin Hurwitz and choreographed by Mandy Moore), the most interesting part of any relationship is the struggle, and that’s where Chazelle grounds his tale. Sebastian, a traditionalist, goes on tour with a jazz-rock band because the money is good and because he convinces himself this is what Mia would want him to do. Mia, trying to understand Sebastian’s purist passion, stays home and slowly goes broke as she writes a one-woman show to showcase her talents. When both plans blow up, they blame each other. L.A. doesn’t just chew you up and spit you out; it makes you compromise everything on the way down.

To quote another musical from 2016, Sing StreetLa La Land is “happy-sad.” Chazelle’s camera roams and soars with grace and vibrancy, and few actors are as enjoyable to watch on screen as Gosling. Fewer still can break your heart. That look on his face isn’t just what happens when you accept the reality in front of you, but dream of what could have been. There’s also a hint of happiness that things turned out as well as they did. It could have been so much worse.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

La La Land (2016)
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Produced by Fred Berger, Gary Gilbert, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend
Lionsgate, Rated R, Running time 128 minutes, Premiered Aug. 31, 2016 at the Venice Film Festival.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 24, No. 19, “Here’s to the dreamers.”