Here's a dirty little pseudo-secret about the life of a film critic – it's much more difficult to write a review for a good movie than it is a bad one. Bad movies are fun and easy to trash; some of us save an entire year's worth of quips for pieces of especially rotten garbage like Passengers, Collateral Beauty or whatever Tyler Perry is up to these days. But good movies, never mind great ones, are a thornier matter. There's a sense, at least to me, of immense responsibility – to honour and respect what the filmmakers have accomplished, hoping that one's own words don't somehow get in the way of their deserved triumph and glory.
Which is all a way of nervously explaining that I struggled for weeks to write a review of La La Land, the utterly magnificent and intoxicating new musical from writer-director Damien Chazelle. Here was a film that absorbed me, and may have very well transformed me. How could 700 or so words possibly do it justice? So, I stalled and downloaded the soundtrack, hoping a revisit of the film's bright and bouncy numbers might provide some inspiration and (truthfully) a distraction.
Instead, I got lost in La La Land all over again – its wistful ballad City of Stars and its tub-thumping opener Another Day of Sun and its heady, brassy, ear-wormy wall of sound created by Chazelle, composer Justin Hurwitz, and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. After a week of failing to escape La La Land via my headphones, I realized I was worrying about the wrong things: this film doesn't need ultra-eloquent champions. It simply needs people to be aware of its existence; almost anyone who happens to see it will be converted by minute three. Guaranteed.
But, for those who need at least some amount of convincing: La La Land is one of the best films of the year, and a much-needed antidote to the rash of crass, heartless studio fare that's been clogging the theatre this year. (Never mind the similarly heartless indie films that have been coasting on unearned quirkiness and cheap misanthropy; I'm looking at you, Swiss Army Man and The Lobster.)
Its boy-meets-girl narrative might seem simple, but as Emma Stone's struggling actress Mia and Ryan Gosling's stubborn musician Sebastian dance in and out and around love in a sparkling Los Angeles, it becomes clear that Chazelle has built a clever, wondrous, and almost impossibly charming picture – a perfect film, as rare a 2016 sighting as a Marvel-free marquee. What's more: it's entirely, thrillingly original in its concept and execution, even if it consistently insists otherwise.
To wit: In the middle of the film, a character berates Gosling's jazz purist for refusing to bend to the times. "All your jazz heroes, they were revolutionaries. But how do you expect to keep jazz alive if you're such a traditionalist?" Over the next few months, expect Chazelle to be praised the world over as the man who brought the big-time movie musical back from the dead, but he's not nearly as stuck in the past as his film's flawed hero. Instead, the writer-director (who previously made a splash with the percussion-as-pain movie Whiplash) borrows liberally from a variety of sources – Old Hollywood, French New Wave, Fellini, Hitchcock, even, I'd argue, a dash of Nicolas Winding Refn – to create something entirely new.
With its instantly classic musical numbers, hypnotizing colour scheme, ridiculously smooth choeography, and Gosling and Stone's palpable level of chemistry (there's a reason why these two have worked together three times now), the film dances its way into your heart with an almost stupid level of ease. Even that great industry fear about musicals – will audiences be able to overcome the transition of watching actors go from talking to, gasp, singing? Should we not protect our precious moviegoers' mental energy at all costs? – is proven to be a fallacy here. For Chazelle, it doesn't appear that life is anything but a musical. You just have to keep your ears open and your feet loose.
Without tripping too much into hyperbole (though I suppose it's too late for that), there is a very specific and wonderful kind of alchemy being practiced here. It's almost a contact-high sort of cinema. Gosling and Stone have certainly never been better, with the latter delivering an all-time classic performance, the kind that will define her career and the careers of various Emma Stone-esque ingenues for years to come. (Her solo number, coming late in the film, will rattle around in your heart and mind for weeks to come, if it ever chooses to leave.) Even a gusty late-act narrative flip by Chazelle – the kind of bold move that could torpedo another, lesser film – works perfectly, and will almost certainly leave you a human-shaped pile of sobs and tears and damp Kleenex.
Already, though, it is so easy to foresee those who would prefer to dismiss Chazelle's achievement, to undercut his influences and belittle the fantasy he's created. (You don't have to go far online to encounter dissenters already tossing out snide jokes like, "Oh, so L.A. is the third character in La La Land, is it? Clever!"; yes, you know what? It is! And it works, damn it!). Ignore that chorus, and instead listen to what La La Land is trying to tell you: that there's magic to be had in the movies, even still. One trip to the theatre is all it will take.
La La Land opens in limited release Dec. 25.