Believe the hype.

Unless you’ve been hiding under the proverbial rock, chances are you’ve seen the trailer for Damien Chazelle’s musical love letter to Los Angeles, the Academy Award frontrunner “La La Land” starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

This modern take on vintage Hollywood storytelling leaps off the screen and pulls viewers in for a classy, adventurous ride about struggling artists falling in love in Los Angeles. It’s exactly the kind of film that might have starred Gene Kelly or Bing Crosby decades ago and yet feels so incredibly fresh and authentic in a modern, 21st century way.

“La La Land” follows aspiring actress Mia (Stone) as she wanders through her life in Los Angeles until she meets jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) and the two begin a courtship for the ages over the next year.

While the primary hook for “La La Land” is inevitably its musical genre, the film shines brightest as a straight character-driven drama with outstanding performances from leads Gosling and Stone. Now in their third film together, Gosling and Stone’s pitch perfect chemistry drive the entirety of the action and make viewers want to dream and fall in love all over again.

Gosling is at his understated best as Sebastian, playing the role with the cool debonair of James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause,” a film that just happens to be one of Sebastian’s favorites. Sebastian appears to be always in control even when things don’t go his way, a testament to the poise Gosling exudes in the character. He also performs his own piano numbers, which took over six months of rehearsal time and are the film’s best moments of quiet intensity.

For as good as Gosling is, Stone is the film’s life force. “La La Land” is the career-defining performance for a talented, Oscar-nominated actress in need of a star-making role. Stone’s turn as struggling actress/barista Mia in Chazelle’s love letter to classic Hollywood musicals is a breath of fresh air amid the dark, harrowing performances we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Hollywood’s top actresses.

The entire film, Stone glides through scene after scene as if on a cloud of air. Her performance is so effortless and light, dancing on a road of eggshells in the most charming of ways. Mia is the quintessential persona of what we imagine falling in love to be like when we’re dreaming about it in our heads and Stone takes every care to make the entire experience feel natural.

“La La Land” is the perfect vehicle for Chazelle to show just how talented of a young director he is.  The vibrancy he is able to create on screen with dynamic color hues that radiate into the audience frame by frame is perfectly balanced against the terrific score from Justin Hurwitz. Los Angeles comes alive in such a forward, present way that few filmmakers have been able to achieve.

The visuals of “La La Land” are best in the film’s many night sequences, where cinematographer Linus Sandgren is able to accent Stone and Gosling’s performances with deep, rich blue and black color palettes. “A Lovely Night,” the song and dance sequence that feels pulled straight from the cutting room floor of a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, exemplifies this balance.

Putting “La La Land” in award season context, Chazelle’s film is a cinch to win the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy as well as a likely winner for both Gosling and Stone in lead acting categories.

Its Academy Award prospects are slightly murkier with strong support for dramas “Manchester By The Sea” and “Moonlight” that may prevent an acting or directing Oscar for “La La Land.” A Best Picture award is considerably more likely thanks to the Academy’s preferential voting ballots that boost films that appear as a voter’s second or third favorite film of the year. 

There’s not really a more delightful cinematic experience in 2016 than “La La Land.” Visually perfect with the best musical score of the year, this modern take on vintage Hollywood storytelling leaps off the screen and pulls viewers in for a classy, adventurous ride.

A clear frontrunner in award conversations this winter, “La La Land” is well worth seeking out in a theater near you.

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