(CNN)At first blush "La La Land" looks like a return to the musicals of old -- a "Singin' in the Rain" for our time, complete with a boy-meets-girl romance against a starry showbiz backdrop. But the movie is more profound than that, one whose buoyant musical numbers add luster to its deeper core.
'La La Land' strikes just the right notes
Establishing himself as a major talent in his early 30s, writer-director Damien Chazelle expands upon the promise of "Whiplash" with a film rich in its palpable sense of longing and weighty because of its rumination on the compromises that must be made to reach those goals. Yet it's dressed up in dazzling song-and-dance routines, in what plays like a love letter to artists of every stripe.
"La La Land" is also, it's worth noting, wonderfully uplifting, in stark contrast to some of this year's other award contenders. Whether that taps into a certain dourness in the national mood remains to be seen, but the project should be more commercially appealing than many of the laudable candidates for such honors. (As an aside, there aren't many legitimate musicals to vie for the Golden Globes' best "comedy or musical" category.)
The story is so simple that describing risks doing the movie an injustice. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress, working as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot. She meets the curt, brooding Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz purist who labels himself "a serious musician" and yearns to open a club, while playing music that he doesn't much like in order to barely make ends meet.
Their first encounter happens wordlessly on a freeway ramp, as the beeps and groans of L.A. traffic (an ongoing character in the story) give way to a raucous dance number, with bodies flashing across hoods and roofs.
Falling in love, however, is only half the battle, as their dreams pull them in different directions. And while Mia initially has ample enthusiasm when the reminder "Audition!" flashes across her phone, given the constant rejection actors face she's left wondering at one point whether she "shoulda been a lawyer," while for all his artistic pretentions, Sebastian muses if it's "time to grow up."
Neither Gosling nor Stone possess a Broadway belt, exactly, but for the purposes of the songs here (including six original numbers), they sound just fine, and the dance sequences are lilting and imaginative. A similar cleverness can be found in the design, such as the primary-color dresses that Mia and her friends wear for a night on the town, or the way the word "CinemaScope" splashes across the screen as the movie begins.
As good as "La La Land" is throughout, the last act elevates the movie considerably. And while everything here has roots elsewhere, the way Chazelle strings these notes together somehow looks and sounds fresh and new.
"La La Land" ultimately isn't just about a place, but a state of mind -- an ode to those who dream of making it big. And while Gosling and Stone provide much of the fancy footwork, even in these cynical times, that lighter-than-air feeling will likely infect moviegoers as well.
"La La Land" opens December 9 in the U.S. It's rated PG-13.