“La La Land” is a bona fide movie musical — characters can break out into song and dance at any minute, without warning — but don’t let that scare you. Writer-director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) goes all in with his tribute to old-school confections: You could write a thesis paper examining all the films he lifts from, most notably “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” but also “Singin’ in the Rain” and “An American in Paris” and pretty much anything starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Even Fellini’s “8 1/2” gets a nod.
Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“American Hustle,” “Joy”), shooting in glorious CinemaScope, drench the screen with so many lights and colors that even practical Los Angeles locations look like sound stages: The city of dreams has rarely been this photogenic or seemed so full of possibility.
Several of the musical numbers are shot in long, uninterrupted takes, including the film’s smashing opener, “Another Day of Sun,” in which people stranded in a traffic jam climb out of their cars and begin to sing and dance. The camera whirls around the highway as the choreography becomes more intricate, and musicians join the fray, and skateboarders and bicyclists start bouncing into the frame, and you get your first taste of the delirious sugar rush “La La Land” imparts. Forget junk-bin jukebox imitations such as “Rock of Ages” or “Pitch Perfect.” “La La Land” is the real deal.
But what elevates “La La Land” beyond the trappings of expert homage — what makes it more than a hollow exercise in technique — is the romance at its center. Chazelle is only 31, but he’s already wise enough to understand how falling in love can alter the course of our lives, even without a happily-ever-after finale.
Mia (Emma Stone) is a barista on a movie studio backlot. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is the house pianist at a posh restaurant. Both of them are dreamers: She yearns to be an actress, he’s a jazz purist who longs to open his own club. Like pretty much everyone else in L.A., they are chasing after that One Big Shot — an opportunity to prove their talent, which will in turn bring them happiness and success.
Things get complicated, though, when they meet and fall in love: Relationships and burgeoning careers don’t always mix. “La La Land” is so beautifully made and so wistful and imaginative (in one scene, the protagonists wind up floating into the air, literally dancing with stars) that the film would have worked regardless of who starred in it. The soundtrack, with a score by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, melds jazzy tempos and lush orchestral arrangements to form a narrative of its own. The songs don’t supplant the dialogue — they extend it, expounding the protagonists’ thoughts and emotions through haunting, earworm melodies.
But Gosling and Stone, who embrace the limitations of their song-and-dance abilities instead of trying to disguise them, elevate “La La Land” into something much more substantial than a tribute to escapism. They give this big, generous movie its soul, and their relationship is so simply rendered and touching that “La La Land,” for all its cotton-candy artifice, rings truer and more honest than most contemporary Hollywood studio pictures.
Here is a celebration of the artistic drive that is also a daring feat of showmanship, as technically accomplished in its own way as “Mad Max Fury Road” or “The Revenant.” But its vibe is the opposite of mechanical. During one musical number, when fireworks start going off in the sky, you can feel them going off in your head too. If the last 10 minutes of this movie don’t make you bawl, you might want to get your heart checked for stones.
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock.
Writer-director: Damien Chazelle.
A Lionsgate release. Running time: 128 minutes. Brief vulgar language. In Miami-Dade only: Aventura, South Beach, Cinepolis, Sunset Place. Expands to more theaters Dec. 25.