LA LA LAND
**** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Damien Chazelle
STARS Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
As effervescent as the finest bottle of champagne, La La Land is an intoxicating motion picture that should particularly please anyone whose heart skips a beat whenever Fred dances on the late show or Judy sings on TCM. More than just a godsend to film fans, though, the picture also has the power to capture the spirits of viewers who don't even particularly care for musicals. A large reason for that all-inclusive embrace is the casting, as director Damien Chazelle has selected two stars who could enchant audience members of any age.
Chazelle's past pictures as writer-director were 2009's jazz-infused Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, so named after characters in Jacques Demy's musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (a heavy influence here as well), and 2014's Whiplash, which won Oscars for film editing, sound mixing and supporting actor J.K. Simmons. Clearly, Chazelle harbors a musical affinity, and that's nowhere more apparent than in this latest effort, the sort of old-fashioned entertainment where ordinary folks suddenly break out into song and dance.
Initially, it appears that neither protagonist has much reason to tap their toes. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress whose auditions invariably end in "Don't call us, we'll call you" declarations, while Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a talented pianist whose insistence on playing experimental jazz gets him frequently bounced by club owners who only want him to perform covers of soothing standards. Mia and Sebastian first encounter each other in heavy traffic, and it's antagonism at first sight. Subsequent meetings, however, lead to an eventual thawing and then a starry romance.
If there's one area in which La La Land doesn't take its cues from Old Hollywood, it's in the ferocity of the character conflicts. When, for instance, Mia and Sebastian inevitably fight, it feels raw and real, forcefully removed from the make-believe of the film's artifice. And yet that dichotomy proves to be a smart choice on Chazelle's part, as it allows every victory to be more savory, every defeat to be more painful, every compromise to be more bittersweet.
The songs are a uniformly strong lot, with Justin Hurwitz providing the music and the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul supplying the lyrics (John Legend, who appears in a supporting role, also contributes one tune). In fact, the technical merits are basically a laundry list of award-worthy contributions, from Linus Sandgren's cinematography to the production design by David Wasco. Yet it's the dynamic duo in front of the cameras that really sells this package, with Gosling and especially Stone marvelous as two kids poised to take on the world with that proverbial spring in their step and that archetypal song in their heart.
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