From practically its first frame, Oscar-nominated “La La Land,” announces that it’s not going to be your routine movie experience.
In one long, impossibly complicated moving shot, several hundred motorists — stranded by a traffic jam on an L.A. freeway — spontaneously break into dance, boogying on their car roofs, leaping, prancing and singing the new song “Another Day of Sun.”
Yes, it’s a musical.
Damien Chazelle, the 31-year-old auteur who displayed his love of both cinema and jazz with 2014’s stunningly intense ”Whiplash,” here attempts nothing more than to take on the long tradition of Hollywood musicals.
“La La Land” is a bittersweet romance, a valentine to jazz and our collective memories of classic movies, and a sterling example of state-of-the-art filmmaking. Small wonder it received a leading seven Golden Globe nominations and is a front-runner for Oscar’s best picture.
Our guy is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a Miles-and-Coltrane-loving jazz pianist who dresses in ’50s retro Sinatra style, drives a pristinely restored land-shark convertible and dreams of running his own club.
For now, though, he miserably plinks out Christmas carols at a supper club, incurring the owner’s wrath by embellishing familiar tunes with bebop digressions.
“I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired,” he rationalizes.
Our girl is Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who pours java at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot. Mia throws herself into dispiriting auditions, where her heartfelt emoting is often rudely interrupted by the casting director’s cellphone and gofers delivering lunch.
As with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they meet cute, dislike each other, meet again and click, their deepening relationship encapsulated in a couple of brilliantly choreographed (by “So You Think You Can Dance’s” Mandy Moore) numbers: an exuberant dance on a hillside drive in Griffith Park at sunset, and a gravity-free after-hours pas de deux in the park’s famous observatory.
Gosling and Stone aren’t great vocalists, but they have charisma in spades, as they showed in 2011’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” And their dancing — frequently captured in impossibly long, convoluted single shots — is absolutely charming.
But two careers in showbiz are hard to juggle. Sebastian is lured away from his jazz purism by an old pal (John Legend), whose funk-jazz fusion sells much better. He finds himself on an endless tour. Mia develops a one-woman show and sees a real possibility of movie stardom. But neither career arc leaves much room for a lasting, nurturing relationship.
When it harks back to the Golden Era of Hollywood musicals, “La La Land” works beautifully. The third act, however, suffers from less music and more angst.
Happily, Chazelle pulls it all together in the end with a show-stopping musical fantasia right out of MGM’s playbook.
The musical score and songs by Chazelle’s “Whiplash” collaborator Justin Hurwitz (lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) are a jazz lover’s delight … which is both a good thing and a problem, inasmuch as there is no one signature song that audiences can hum as they head for the exits. In the moment, however, these compositions work very well.
Despite his tender years, Chazelle is a master of composition, color and camera movement, and there are shots here so drop-dead gorgeous you wonder how he and cinematographer Linus Sandgren pulled them off.
And Chazelle has filled his film with loving references to other movies, not just musicals (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and Scorsese’s “New York, New York” are obvious influences), but also “Casablanca” and other giants of the Hollywood canon.
Really? This guy is only 31?