Lovely “La La Land” pays homage to the mu­si­cal

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ann Hor­na­day

“La La Land,” Damien Chazelle’s ex­u­ber­ant, thought­ful ode to by­gone movie mu­si­cals, begins with two bravura ges­tures. Af­ter a retro-look­ing Cine­maS­cope logo an­nounc­ing the film’s big-screen purists’ cre­den­tials, it opens in earnest with an ex­hil­a­rat­ing, wildly am­bi­tious pro­duc­tion num­ber dur­ing which dozens of Los Angeles strivers sing and dance atop their cars dur­ing a high­way traf­fic jam.

Bright, pri­mary-hued and boldly staged as if to oc­cur in one un­bro­ken shot, that pro­logue sets the stage for what’s to come: a nos­tal­gic boy-meets-girl ro­mance shot through with win­some mu­si­cal num­bers and mod­estly charm­ing dance num­bers that, at its core, makes a daz­zling case for movies as they used to be. With “La La Land,” Chazelle seems to be stak­ing his claim, not only as a pas­sion­ate pre­server of cinema’s most cher­ished gen­res (he made his mark a few years ago with his break­through drama “Whiplash”), but a sav­ior of the medium it­self.

It’s dur­ing that traf­fic jam scene that the prin­ci­ple play­ers meet cute, as they say in the trade. Mia (Emma Stone) is a young, mostly out-of-work ac­tress mak­ing a liv­ing as a barista on a stu­dio back lot. Se­bas­tian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pi­anist with ex­act­ing stan­dards and a some­what sour out­look on love. Ac­cord­ing to for­mula, when they first en­counter one another sparks fly, but they’re ar­gu­men­ta­tive and full of ag­gres­sion.

As their re­la­tion­ship de­vel­ops, it be­comes a ves­sel for all man­ner of ar­gu­ments about art, am­bi­tion, ideals and com­pro­mise, wind­ing up in a place that, even if some view­ers see it com­ing, will al­most as­suredly leave sev­eral of them in a cathar­tic pud­dle. (A gen­tle warn­ing: There won’t be sobs, but there will be tears.)

Work­ing to­gether for the third time, Stone and Gosling quickly es­tab­lish an easy rap­port with one another, their sur­pass­ingly at­trac­tive phys­i­cal fea­tures the per­fect foils for Chazelle’s aes­thetic ap­proach of nat­u­ral­ism and ex­treme styl­iza­tion. Nei­ther is a par­tic­u­larly gifted singer or dancer, but that hardly mat­ters in a film that sweeps them up as if car­ried by a swirling force of na­ture: They have the un­forced grace of nat­u­ral per­form­ers, lend­ing an off­hand rak­ish­ness to ev­ery step they take. In ad­di­tion to be­ing fine ac­tors in their own right, their gifts dove­tail per­fectly with com­poser Justin Hur­witz’s in­ge­nious songs, and have been lent even more sparkle by Tom Cross’s crisp edit­ing — which stays grat­i­fy­ingly quiet dur­ing the grace­fully filmed dance se­quences.

One of the movie’s themes is the of­ten ab­surd pur­suit of star­dom that de­fines Los Angeles at its most shal­low and ca­reerist. Chazelle lards his script with lit­tle digs at show­biz jar­gon.

The film is lit­er­ally in­scribed with Hol­ly­wood’s mythic past, from such fa­mil­iar back­drops as the Grif­fith Ob­ser­va­tory to the movie star mu­rals on the city’s streets. The sub­text is that it has two stars at its cen­ter who can con­vey hunger and avid­ity at one mo­ment and a shiny sense of pre­or­dained fame and for­tune the next.

But the real star in “La La Land” is the movie it­self, which pulses and glows like a liv­ing thing in its own right, as if the MGM mu­si­cals of the “Sin­gin’ in the Rain” era had a love child with the more ab­stract con­fec­tions of Jacques Demy, cre­at­ing a new kind of know­ing, self­aware genre that re­wards the au­di­ence with all the in­dul­gences they crave — beau­ti­ful sets and cos­tumes, fan­ci­ful stag­ing and chore­og­ra­phy, witty songs, es­capist wish-ful­fill­ment — while com­ment­ing on them from the side­lines.

Dale Robi­nette, Lionsgate

Ryan Gosling, left, and Emma Stone in “La La Land.”

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