You can't judge a songbook by its cover.
Take a glance at the poster. Watch the trailer or see the clips on TV. Surely it's all the evidence you need that La La Land is writer/director Damien Chazelle's valentine to the glorious Cinemascope musicals of the 1950s. And it is - clearly, unabashedly, unashamedly. To the film's benefit, however, Chazelle's love for them is not unconditional.
After a rousing opening number (don't be late taking your seat), we meet the leads. Ryan Gosling is a frustrated jazz pianist. He's either playing standards to an unappreciative bar audience or slumming it in an '80s covers wedding band. Emma Stone works in a film studio cafe, dishing out the coffee and cookies whilst dreaming of starring in her own, one-woman show. Boy meet-cutes girl and lo and behold, love is in the air. Gosling and Stone then dance and sing their way, in dizzyingly long takes, through L.A.'s most Kodak moment worthy locations,
La La Land is a rarity - a film musical, with original songs, that hasn't come from Broadway and isn't animated. A musical stands (or falls) on his songs. Fortunately, Justin Hurwitz has composed a soundtrack packed with memorable tunes, the kind that you'll be humming all the way home. And then all the way back to the cinema for your second (or third or fourth) viewing.
What ultimately makes La La Land work so well is that, for each Technicolor fantasy moment (a hillside duet here, a gravity-defying waltz through the stars there), there's a sobering measure of back-down-to-earth reality. Two shots of happy, one shot of sad. It's most clear when late on in the film, Gosling and Stone come across a fork in the yellow brick road of their careers. The route that they choose is not one that would have been taken by the musicals of the '50s. It's this blending of sky's-the-limit fantasy and modern-day reality that makes La La Land such an irresistible movie. Chazelle doesn't shy away from real life - the joy and pain of being in a relationship and how that special person in your life can either raise your craft or hold back your ambitions.
Truly wonderful, La La Land is a rush of sunshine, perfect for this wintry time of year.