After the hypnotic Whiplash and its dynamic, percussive exploration of jazz and musicianship, there's no better director than Damien Chazelle to helm this new kind of movie musical.
La La Land, like his previous film, is an ode to jazz. It's there in the intimate jazz clubs that form the backdrop to many scenes, it's there in the passion of Ryan Gosling's Seb - a jazz pianist who idolises the greats and dreams of similar success - and it's there in the rhythmic camerawork that mirrors the textures of everyday life. Above all it's in Justin Hurwitz's glorious score, which uses jazz to reflect the film's multitude themes: the bustle of city living, the giddy fluttering rush of new love, and the slow melancholy of romance.
As an ode to movie musicals, the film revels in the transporting power of music. Each song is a dreamlike sequence, light of touch, bright of colour and wonderfully surreal. The film is a playful reminiscence on classical Hollywood, with all the glamour and enchantment that brings, and filled with references bold and subtle. It all comes together in a climactic dream ballet montage that encapsulates the awesome power of music, film, romance and - above all - nostalgia. It's here that Chazelle revels in filmmaking with some brilliant direction.
Equally, however, the film is a criticism of those old movies and works instead as an ode to modern relationships. Despite its surreal music and soft cinematography, this is a harshly realistic take on romance through the lens of a musical. Emma Stone's struggling actress Mia is a thoroughly modern woman, Stone giving a typically quirky, goofy and sarcastic performance. Gosling's Seb is an old-fashioned dreamer. Neither are particularly good singers (the wispy Stone nor the flatly crooning Gosling, whose piano miming needs work) but that only adds to the film's everyday realism. Regardless, both actors are immensely likeable with believable chemistry, but their romance doesn't always run smoothly. Ironically enough, love isn't like the movies.
La La Land, then, is a sometimes awkward collision of old and new - just like its protagonists. Mia worries her one woman play is too nostalgic; Seb is a traditionalist who joins a band diluting jazz with futuristic synths. They tug in opposite directions, yet they pull together magnetically. In the twenty-first century, though, you can't have it all. Personal dreams don't allow for romance. Romance isn't always a dream.
That's a jarring but welcome message for a movie musical, though its heartbreaking realism is beautifully scripted and acted. La La Land is a clever, pensive and bittersweet film that's reflective and thought-provoking, but more likely to capture the mind than the heart.
Watch: La La Land is out now.