La La Land

LA LA LAND, mu­si­cal, rated PG-13; Regal Sta­dium 14, Vi­o­let Crown; 3.5 chiles

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The Great De­pres­sion of the 1930s gave rise to one of the great Amer­i­can art forms, the movie mu­si­cal. Fred and Ginger soared, glided, and tapped over gleam­ing pol­ished floors; Busby Berke­ley lav­ished beau­ti­ful girls in pre­cise aban­don across glo­ri­ously im­pos­si­ble sets; Ruby Keeler went out there a young­ster and came back a star. When the go­ing got des­per­ate, the des­per­ate got es­capist, and found an­other re­al­ity to live in, at least for 90 or so mag­i­cal min­utes at a time.

The movie mu­si­cal sur­vived the De­pres­sion, and the war, and burst into a glo­ri­ous Tech­ni­color hey­day in the ’40s and ’50s with clas­sics like Seven Brides for

Seven Broth­ers and Sin­gin’ in the Rain, be­fore grad­u­ally sink­ing from view, with oc­ca­sional re­prieves like Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola’s un­der­rated One from the Heart (1982) and Woody Allen’s whim­si­cal Every­one Says I

Love You (1996). In lat­ter years, we’ve turned to dif­fer­ent di­ver­sion­ary memes, and our cin­e­matic dis­trac­tions have tended to come with ex­plo­sions and buck­ets of blood and hails of bul­lets. And that model shows no signs of go­ing away. But here comes Damien Chazelle, the bril­liant young di­rec­tor of the gritty 2014 jazz film

Whiplash, to salve the wounds of a bruised and riven coun­try with a movie that’s a throw­back and an homage to the movies, and es­pe­cially the musicals, of an ear­lier age.

La La Land, like so many sto­ries be­fore it, pays trib­ute to the young artist with a dream, strug­gling against long odds to make a splash in show business. Here the hope­fuls are Mia (Emma Stone), an as­pir­ing ac­tress who flings aside her barista apron at a stu­dio lot cof­fee shop to rush to au­di­tions that per­pet­u­ally quash, but do not ex­tin­guish, her hopes; and Seb (Ryan Gosling), a pi­anist try­ing to hold onto his classic jazz ideals in a world where that once-tow­er­ing Amer­i­can art form, like the movie mu­si­cal, seems to have lost its hold on the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion.

They meet in a traf­fic jam. Or at least, that’s where they first lay eyes on each other. Chazelle opens with a full-blown dance num­ber that blos­soms out of grid­lock on a Los Angeles free­way, as young peo­ple emerge from stalled cars to snap, tap, step, and leap in a glo­ri­ous pro­duc­tion num­ber, “An­other Day of Sun.” As traf­fic fi­nally be­gins to move, Seb finds him­self stuck be­hind an obliv­i­ous, tex­ting Mia. He blasts his horn and pulls out im­pa­tiently past her. She flips him the bird. You can tell these kids are meant for each other.

They meet, and meet again, and sud­denly they’re in love. Gosling and Stone have been there be­fore (the 2011 ro­man­tic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love, and the ’40s crime drama Gangster Squad in 2013), so they know their way around each other, and the chem­istry be­tween them is pal­pa­ble. Nei­ther of them is a dancer on the level of As­taire and Rogers, but they’re no slouches ei­ther, and it’s a plea­sure to watch them drift and strut and bend. And Chazelle ad­heres to the dic­tum laid down by As­taire, that the dance num­bers be filmed un­bro­ken, al­ways show­ing the dancers in full, from head to foot. There’s none of that cheap cut­away trick­ery that made a trav­esty of the dance num­bers in a movie like Chicago. What you see here is the real goods, and even with mod­est im­per­fec­tions, it’s win­ning.

La La Land wears its in­flu­ences lov­ingly, from the open­ing Cine­mas­cope credit to the Tech­ni­color pas­tels and brights that bathe its scenes in nos­tal­gia. Flashes can crop up at any mo­ment to trig­ger glimpses of Casablanca, or the dance in the park from The

Band­wagon, or the plan­e­tar­ium in Rebel With­out a Cause. A poster of In­grid Bergman over Mia’s bed is a re­minder to to­day’s hope­fuls that you may be bet­ter than the great movie stars of the past, but you’ll never be as good.

Chazelle starts off with that ex­u­ber­ant free­way dance num­ber, but he doesn’t stay com­mit­ted to the classic form. The movie seems to go for stretches for­get­ting that it’s a mu­si­cal — mu­sic is al­ways a part of it, but not al­ways in the An Amer­i­can in Paris tra­di­tion of break­ing into pro­duc­tion num­bers at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals.

The story moves through love and loss, triumphs and dis­ap­point­ments. Seb’s dream of a jazz club gets beaten down, and he takes a job as a key­boardist with a pop group led by an old friend, played by the charis­matic John Legend. Mia loses heart, aban­dons her quest, and goes home. That’s not the end of it, of course, and there are plenty of highs yet to come, but it’s a warn­ing: Things don’t al­ways work out the way you think, or hope, or dream. — Jonathan Richards

Swing time: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling

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