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The Magic of 'La La Land'

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in a story of love and dreams

Dec. 20, 2016
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Magic is an overused word, especially when writing about movies, but La La Land is truly magical. It reunites Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone for another round of young love following their success with Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad. But while La La Land is a love story, it’s also a tale of chasing dreams across a city where dreams have long been manufactured, the mecca of the entertainment industry, Los Angeles.

La La Land

Ryan Gosling
Emma Stone
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Rated PG-13

La La Land begins with a banner announcement, “Presented in Cinemascope,” an eager nod to golden age big-screen Hollywood epics filmed in colors beyond the richness of everyday experience. It cuts to traffic caught on a crowded LA freeway of nowadays where a babel of radios blare through open car windows and angry drivers lean on their horns. Suddenly, a woman leaps from her car and begins to dance and sing amid the stalled traffic. Other drivers and passengers join in. And just as abruptly, the show ends, the performers return to their cars and become commuters again, the traffic rolls forward and the banality of everyday life returns.

La La Land is a dialogue between fantasy and reality. It’s a musical and, as in Singing in the Rain, conversations often erupt into kinetic performances of songs. Sebastian (Gosling) and Mia (Stone) meet in that traffic snarl, and their first encounter—and their second and their third—aren’t promising. And once they start to know each other, another obstacle rears up. Sebastian is a jazz pianist and Mia hates jazz. Of course, she knows nothing of that music beyond Kenny G and soon receives an education. But for the star-crossed lovers, other barriers emerge on their path soon enough.

Both Sebastian and Mia are dreamers—she wants to be an actress and he wants to earn a living playing jazz. Both are living in the past: Sebastian in the era of Charlie Parker and Mia in the time of Casablanca. To compromise with the present day is one temptation. To forget their dreams is another.

The magic comes when the film captures the towering elation of romantic love, which is to ordinary experience as Cinemascope is to a selfie, as well as writer-director Damien Chazelle’s recreation of the magical settings of the old musicals he obviously loves. The lamp-lit streets Sebastian and Mia walk become the stage for a Gene Kelly-Debby Reynolds routine; the neon is gorgeous; the view of the city at dusk from the Hollywood Hills is breathtaking. And yes, the original songs by Justin Hurwitz are good, better than most of what is heard on Broadway these days. Sebastian and Mia live in a version of Los Angeles where the past still endures. She lives in a stucco bungalow off a courtyard in a flat hung with old movie posters. His apartment is filled with vinyl jazz LPs.

La La Land is a smashing reprise to Chazelle’s previous production, the Oscar-winning Whiplash. Both films trade on the dreams of young creative people. One difference is that Whiplash is a hard-edged solo journey while La La Land is softened by wistfulness and romance, magic served with a twist of melancholy.

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