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“This is the dream! It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting!”

That could be very well be writer-director Damien Chazelle speaking directly to the audience, on not just Hollywood but the very pursuit of filmmaking.

No one can accuse him on compromising on La La Land though. It features one of the most spectacular openings of the year: a traffic jam on a sun-kissed freeway turns into an impromptu dance number as dozens of commuters get on top of their cars and sing their dreams out loud to the world. This is Chazelle throwing us into the deep end: yes, this is going to be that kind of a musical.

It’s on that freeway that the film’s star-crossed leads Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) have their first not-so-meet-cute. Seb is a jazz pianist who dreams of one day opening his own jazz club and somehow saving a dying art form. Mia is an aspiring actress who works in a coffee shop by day and suffers through disastrous auditions by evening. She’s the kind of girl who can’t make a snarky comment about a role without immediately taking it back, because she knows what it takes to make it in the city. Over multiple chance meetings they fall in love and we follow their relationship across the seasons.

Chazelle’s take on Hollywood is filled with loving references to everything from classic musicals like Singin’ In The Rain to more modern fare. The colorful poolside parties filled with vacant characters are reminiscent of Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (La La Land even begins around Christmas time) and audiences last saw Gosling driving a retro convertible in Black’s 70s LA set The Nice Guys. There’s even a hint of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr in there.

But ultimately La La Land is its own beast, nowhere near as cynical or dark as those films. It’s achingly retro and sincere, not so much wearing its heart on its sleeve but offering its heart to you in its palms. And once you take that chance, it’s impossible not to fall in love. To borrow from critic David Ehrlich, La La Land is both a romance about movies and a movie about romance. It’s the rare film that not only captures but celebrates the fleetingness of romance. It makes even the painful truths about following your dreams and making sacrifices feel like a warm blanket.

The original songs by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul will prove difficult to get out of your head. While neither Gosling or Stone are great singers or dancers their imperfections make the numbers much more rewarding. Gosling particularly looks and sounds built for part of an old Hollywood soul while Stone puts in a completely revealing performance. Together they are magic. DP Linus Sandgren makes LA looks like neon-pastel utopia, La La Land is simply one of the best looking films of the year. You can’t give enough credit to choreographer Mandy Moore, production designer David Wasco and costume designer Mary Zohres.

Early on in their courtship, Seb takes Mia to a jazz club and expounds with great heart the origin and history of the music form. Mia, who’d just minutes ago exclaimed that she hates jazz, is transfixed. “And it’s dying,” he follows. People will always appreciate things that other people are passionate about, she tries to console him. Seb isn’t so sure.

This feels like not just a conversation director Damien Chazelle has had before, it feels like a conversation he’s having with himself. La La Land is Chazelle’s battle cry for jazz, musicals, but also big screen movies, the kind that don’t need explosions or superheroes. It comes at a time when many are mourning the death of cinema. And it’s an astounding success.

La La Land releases in India on December 16th. You can listen to the duet ‘City of Stars’ from the film below.

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