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La La Land

By Movie Review, 2017-01-02

For the millennials whose patience with song and dance is usually limited to short-form flashy videos a modern homage to movie musicals of yesteryear is likely a tough sell – but hopefully not. Written and directed by 31-year-old Damien Chazelle La La Land brings the feature-length movie musical to life for the 21st century. You leave the auditorium exhilarated by Chazelle's inventiveness and dazzled by the performances of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as star-crossed lovers. There are more momentous films this year, movies geared to test our conscience (Fences and Moonlight)) or lunge at our hearts (Loving and Manchester by the Sea) But what makes La La Land such a delight is that it is a lush and giddily musical love-letter to Hollywood.

Like most film musicals, good or bad, you can write the plot on the head of that proverbial pin. La La Land centers on a year in the doomed romance between a wannabe actress named Mia Dolan (Stone), demoted to waiting tables in the Warner Brothers coffee shop and a prickly jazz pianist named Sebastian “Seb” Wilder (Gosling), miserably relegated to playing Christmas carols in a Hollywood watering-hole run by a man who is no music lover. This unhappy duo have a meet-cute in a traffic jam. Mia is distractedly going through her pages for an audition she has later in the day. She doesn’t notice the cars ahead starting, and holds up the driver behind her: a disagreeable guy in a macho red convertible, who pulls belligerently round to overtake, scowling at Mia and receiving the finger in return. This is our introduction to Seb.

This opening scene was filmed in a single unbroken take. Horns blast. Agitated, angry drivers sweat and swear. But then the chaos stops and a woman in a battered Chevy begins singing to herself and steps out of her vehicle. She is followed by another driver, and another. The musical number continues expanding until dozens of commuters are on the roofs and hoods of their cars, singing, dancing, performing flips and skateboard tricks, and celebrating, en masse a Latin-tinged tune called “Another Day of Sun,” one of many well-written La La Land songs by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Director Chazelle shot the number on a closed freeway overpass in downtown LA. More than 100 dancers participated; noted choreographer Mandy Moore provided the inspired moves.

Mia and Seb meet again in random encounters and a connection begins when he walks Mia to her car after a crowded poolside party. It was a working gig for him as part of an '80s cover band that he hates (but needs to make rent.) She was a flirtatious guest who made fun of the retro clothes he was required to wear and the tacky music he was forced to play. Until this moment when they drop their defenses, they’ve mostly been circling each other, looking for weaknesses to exploit with a well-timed verbal right hook to the ego. But when their eyes finally lock and their souls embrace, all that can be done is to celebrate this once-in-a-lifetime connection in a song-and-dance routine that takes place in a random neighborhood street with a twilight-lit L.A. valley as their backdrop. Mia hears Seb sing the wistful ballad "City of Stars” (a candidate for the Best Song Oscar). It’s the perfect movie moment, as staged by Moore’s fanciful and restrained choreography that feels so un-Hollywood which, by the way, is the twist of La La Land. Chazelle isn’t recreating the golden days of musicals, but, rather, paying homage to that era with actors who lack the polish and perfection of Astaire and Rogers.

These crass, cold-hearted times are heavy with irony and irreverence and sweetness is no longer in vogue, so it is a delightful surprise to view a movie that is openly sweet and romantic. With no little audacity, La La Land seeks its own place somewhere on a continuum between the classic Singin’ in the Rain and Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You. The reserved New York Film Critics awarded La La Land the prize for Best Film of the Year. I’m not sure about that award or the seven Golden Globe nominations but La La Land is very charming, Even if you are not a particular fan of musicals and jazz, you will nonetheless likely share my enthusiasm for the lead performances by Gosling and Stone. Their ease with each other is a key reason La La Land is a success. They have the heat they sparked in the 2011 Crazy Stupid Love (remember those delightful post-coital murmurings) and their chemistry buoys the movie. Stone is the standout of the pair; delivering a performance that’s full of charm and vulnerability, whether she is singing or just making small talk. And when she sings the wistful ballad “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” she is every inch a star. Stone has always known how to make us laugh, but in La La Land she shows she can make us cry, too. The camera loves her and so do we - her huge doe eyes radiating wit and intelligence when they’re not filling with tears.

Starry nights and street lamps lighting up the innocence of soft-shoe romance, and two attractive people who were meant for each other literally dancing on air. Yes, there is magic to be had in the movies, even still.  La La Land is easily recommended.

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