Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone aren't great singers, but have serious chemistry

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone make "La La Land" a great romance movie, mediocre musical.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone make "La La Land" a great romance movie, mediocre musical. Lionsgate

What I like about La La Land is what many others are sure to dislike: It isn’t a very good musical.

Emma Stone and especially Ryan Gosling aren’t the most gifted of singers, and after the first act, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash mostly ceases to be a traditional musical at all. But it is an affecting romance, one with genuine chemistry between its two leads. It’s both an ode to and exemplar of the movie magic of yore.

The film opens with an elaborate, enervating song-and-dance number that shuts down a major freeway in Los Angeles. It gets mercifully mellow from there. The two soon-to-be lovers meet cute in the ensuing traffic jam, an event we see from both perspectives.

Then comes their first real encounter: Mia (Stone) watches in awe as Sebastian (Gosling) gets fired from his piano-playing gig for abandoning the crowd-pleasing Christmas tunes in favor of some aspirational free jazz. “I just heard you play,” she says as he walks toward her, “and—” then he bumps into her on his way out the door without saying a word. Fret not, romantics: The two fall in love a short while after this second almost-encounter.

La La Land is rarely as moving as it is during their winsome courtship. Chazelle imposes all manner of familiar plot contrivances to get in their way, from a difference of opinion on the merits of jazz to a boyfriend we know won’t last more than a few scenes. But love conquers all — at least for a time.

Many of the couple’s troubles are both professional and creative. Sebastian’s a struggling musician and would-be club owner whose admiration of old-school jazz greats isn’t as forward-thinking as those legends themselves. Meanwhile Mia is attempting to launch an acting career with a one-woman show. Both by choice and by accident, they’re constantly reminded of the heights to which they’ve yet to ascend: Mia works in a coffee shop on a studio lot, while Sebastian surrounds himself with LPs recorded by luminaries he wants to both honor and live up to.

La La Land exists in the space between glitz and glamour, blooming love and growing disappointment. Movie-star murals are painted on the sides of storage buildings, once-great clubs now pander to the musical fads of today. It’s here that Chazelle’s film first shows its melancholy side, which takes hold in the second half and threatens to never let go.

Movies end and the lights come on; dreams end and you wake up. Who you find next to you when your eyes adjust to the light — whether in the theater or in your bed — counts for everything. Sometimes there’s no one there at all. We do grand, foolish things to avoid that eventuality — singing and dancing is just the tip of the iceberg — and imagine other realities for ourselves when the real one isn’t to our liking.

There’s joy to these flights of fancy, but great sadness as well. La La Land expresses both ends of this emotional spectrum throughout. We’re given a glimpse of a future that’s no less beautiful for the fact that it will never come to pass.

La La Land
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Opens Friday, Uptown Theatre