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edge staff writer


'La La Land' is la-la-lovely

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Movie musical a wonderful blend of old and new

Full disclosure – I’m a sucker for movie musicals. Always have been, always will be.

I love the joyful sweep of them, the creative flexibility that they allow in terms of storytelling. When done well, they are magnificent viewing experiences that embody so much of what is wonderful about the movies. So yeah – I dig them.

So it’s no surprise that I would be enamored of “La La Land,” the latest offering from writer-director Damien Chazelle. Starring Ryan Gosling (“The Nice Guys”) and Emma Stone (“Aloha”). It’s a sweet and sincere love letter to Hollywood glamour, a celebration of the millions of dreams – fulfilled or otherwise – that fuel that world. Perhaps not what you’d expect from Chazelle after his arrival with “Whiplash,” but his passion is omnipresent and undeniable.

So yeah. Spoiler alert: I loved this movie.

Stone is Mia, an aspiring actress working as a barista in a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers studio lot. She’s struggling to make it happen, going on audition after audition and generally trying (and failing) to land a real shot at stardom. Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz musician who dreams of opening a jazz club of his own; despite the seeming imminence of the genre’s demise, he rages against the dying of the light.

The two of them cross paths on a few occasions with less than ideal results before finally connecting. And when they do, things happen fast. Mia and Sebastian bring out the best in one another, with each finding ways to support and celebrate the strengths and talents of the other. She pushes him to make a serious go at his club; he urges her to writer her own story and create her own opportunity.

But when Sebastian’s old acquaintance Keith (singer John Legend) appears bearing an opportunity, things get complicated. Playing keys in Keith’s new band has the potential to be extremely lucrative, but possibly at the expense of Sebastian’s creative purity. Meanwhile, Mia is hard at work on a project that may turn out to be an all-or-nothing gamble – a gamble on which her very future could rely.

And through it all, a magnificent assortment of old-school production numbers, awash in the kind of song-and-dance exuberance that makes movie musicals so much fun to watch. It is very much a cinematic spectacle in all the best ways.

The danger with something like “La La Land” is that it could easily become a self-indulgent collection of patted backs, an insular ouroboros that disappears up its own behind in a puff of tuneful smugness. Instead, it never wavers from its wide-eyed sincerity; in moments happy and sad alike, the movie retains its sense of toe-tapping joy.

Again, it’s a bit of a surprise that this film sprang from the mind of Damien Chazelle. It’s not a question of tone – though “La La Land” is a good deal brighter than “Whiplash” -nor of subject matter; both films are, at heart, about the pain that can come from following one’s dreams. Frankly, the surprise comes from the exquisite meticulousness; this is a massive leap in scale in terms of production, but Chazelle’s talent and passion serve him well, allowing him to level up in a manner that is aesthetically brilliant and beautifully heartfelt.

And since this is a musical, let’s talk about the songs. Long story short, they’re excellent. Justin Hurwitz – who also collaborated with Chazelle on “Whiplash” – has created songs that are both of the moment and distinctly reminiscent of the movie musicals of days gone by. Hurwitz teamed up with noted musical theatre composing duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – who wrote the lyrics – to create a rich and broad soundscape, generating songs that are an ideal mix of tuneful and heartfelt. For instance, “City of Stars” is a flat-out beautiful song. “A Lovely Night” is fantastic, while “Another Day of Sun” is as rousing a curtain-raising number as the cinema has seen in decades.

(As for the dance numbers, I’m not even sure where to start. Seriously – any effort to describe the production numbers will be for naught … though note should be made of the breathtaking planetarium dance scene and the aforementioned “Another Day of Sun.” That said, all the dance stuff is a lot of fun.)

Stone and Gosling have both received critical plaudits a-plenty for their work here. But make no mistake – they definitely earn every bit of acclaim they receive. Stone illustrates the wide-eyed faith of the aspiring actress beautifully, capturing the nuances of the seemingly never-ending cycle of hope and disappointment. It’s a thoughtful performance from a talented performer. Gosling finds ways to lean into Sebastian’s cynicism without sacrificing his likeability; it’s a delicate balancing act that he pulls off with aplomb. And the two of them together are just a delight; the chemistry between them is palpable in every scene. Their interactions are awash in intensity – everything from their misfire of a meet-cute through the assorted highs and lows of their relationship is rendered neon-bright; they match the movie that surrounds them perfectly.

Despite the spotlight shining primarily (and at times literally) on Stone and Gosling, the supporting cast acquits itself wonderfully as well. Legend is quite good – his song “Start a Fire” is a highlight – while talented folks like Rosemarie DeWitt, Finn Wittrock and Chazelle’s main man J.K. Simmons all do fine work.

“La La Land” captures the nostalgic joy of old Hollywood while infusing it with a generous helping of the new. That old-school/new-school dichotomy results in a visually arresting film packed with engaging music and anchored by a pair of outstanding performances. While love for the movie musicals of yesteryear will certainly enhance one’s enjoyment, it certainly isn’t necessary. Anyone who loves movies is going to be transported by this film’s passionate whimsy and undeniable soul. It is funny and heartfelt and an utter triumph.

[5 out of 5]


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