Woman in a yellow dress and man in a shirt and tie dancing wildly

Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) share a get-acquainted dance in La La Land (photo by Dale Robinette)

La La Land is the most exhilarating film of the year. That becomes obvious before the title credit even appears.   

Opening on the scene of a backed-up Los Angeles freeway, the camera eventually settles on a woman who begins singing and dancing about her determination to make it in show business. Others join in the catchy song as the camera wanders along the line of cars in a giant production number that gives the impression of being shot in one long, intricately choreographed take.  

By the time the words La La Land appear on the screen, we’ve been blown away by the sheer audaciousness of writer/director Damien Chazelle’s vision. All that’s left is to be charmed by the romance that slowly percolates between his charismatic leads.

Mia (Emma Stone) is a would-be actor who drags herself from one disappointing audition to the next in between shifts at a coffee shop located on the Warner Bros. movie lot. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist working at a nightclub where he’s forbidden to play the jazz that winds its way through his DNA. 

After encountering each other as frustrated motorists in the midst of that massive traffic jam, Mia runs into the pianist again after a late-night flurry of jazz improvisation has cost him his job. She tries to express her admiration for his music, but he only brushes by her in his haste to escape.

Not until they meet for a third time—at a party where Mia spies a miserable Sebastian manning the keyboard in a rock cover band—do they have the chance to get acquainted. Even then, they seem leery of getting involved, even though they wrap up the evening by sharing a gentle song and dance.

Throughout, La La Land is a blend of old and new. Expressing a growing attraction by trading dance steps is a Hollywood tradition, yet Mia and particularly Sebastian view romance with hesitation, as if afraid it will distract them from pursuing their dreams. That streak of independence anchors their relationship firmly in the present even as the film’s production numbers pay homage to a bygone era.

As the couple at the center of the tale, Stone and Gosling bring more to the table than their obvious chemistry. Though they don’t dance like Fred and Ginger, their voices and moves are honest and graceful enough to make their songs and dance numbers endearing. Musical highlights include Gosling’s wistful “City of Stars” and Stone’s impassioned rendition of the Sondheim-like “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” as well as piano solos that prove Gosling can tickle the ivories like a pro.

Beyond its leads, the movie depends a slew of equally talented individuals.

Most of the gorgeous songs are the work of composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, though John Legend adds a near-showstopper of his own after he arrives on the scene as Keith, a musician who offers Sebastian a steady gig.

Other key contributors include choreographer Mandy Moore, who shapes dance numbers ranging from intimate to flashy and even magical; and cinematographer Linus Sandgren, whose imagery perfectly captures the musical’s mixture of exuberant romance and bittersweet realism.

Writer/director Chazelle has given us a film that affectionately does to Hollywood musicals what The Artist did to silent films back in 2011. That flick, you may recall, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Don’t be surprised if La La Land does the same.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

La La Land (rated PG-13) opens Saturday and Sunday (Dec. 24-25) at theaters nationwide.