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‘La La Land’ Review: A Musical for People Who Hate Musicals

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in Damien Chazelle's enchanting followup to 'Whiplash' as lovers who are star-crossed in a distinctly modern way.

The movie musical is dead. It's been dead for over half a century, when Hollywood studios stopped making them with regularity and moviegoers grew out of the habit of accepting characters who suddenly break into song. That hasn't kept them from being produced, of course, or from garnering acclaim and awards and significant box office, but they usually have to be modified in some way: revisionist musicals like All That Jazz or New York, New York; stage-to-screen musicals like Chicago or Mamma Mia; deliberately awkward "modern" musicals like Dancer in the Dark or Everyone Says I Love You; and the animated musicals Disney turns out with regularity. Virtually none of the newer Hollywood musicals are written directly for the screen, and they all have to solve for the fact that audiences will naturally look askance at this walking corpse of a genre.

Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of the thoroughly enchanting musical La La Land, understands his dilemma so well he's baked it right into the script. When Mia (Emma Stone), a backlot barista with dreams of stardom, declares "I hate jazz" to Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a pianist with dreams of opening an old-fashioned jazz club, he cringes at the line. She confesses to him that jazz, as she understands it, is Kenny G and the other soft-jazz that gets piped into dinner parties. Sebastian recovers from the slight and proceeds to give her a fuller introduction to the music he's so passionate about recreating in its classic form. Jazz is great, but people have the wrong idea of what it is.

This exchange is Chazelle's clever little wrist-slap to the "I hate musicals" crowd, who are to recoil at Tom Cruise vamping through "Pour Some Sugar on Me" or Pierce Brosnan torturing an Abba single. La La Land is a throwback musical, which comes with its own kind of quotation marks, but Chazelle has committed to reviving the past as sincerely as Sebastian, knowing full well that he'll meet the same resistance. For viewers weaned on lifeless Broadway adaptations, there's a good chance La La Land will be unlike any movie they've ever seen, which gives Chazelle the freedom to plunder the vaults like a pirate who knows where the treasure has been buried. Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, A Star is Born, the Jacques Demy duo of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort—all ripe for the taking.

As much as La La Land evokes the past, the one obstacle Mia and Sebastian's relationship faces is contemporary.

La La Land opens with its worst number, a garbled attempt to turn a mid-day traffic jam out of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 into an ovation-grubbing showstopper. But the sentiment behind it is charming: that Los Angeles can be transformed into an enchanting city, even the part of it that everybody loathes. Starting with a road rage incident on the freeway, Mia and Sebastian have a series of adorable meet-hates until they begin to realize that destiny is forcing them together like reluctant tagalongs on a double date. There's a perfectly acceptable rom-com version of La La Land to be made out of this script, based on Chazelle's fizzy dialogue and the vibe between Gosling and Stone, whose chemistry could cure a global pandemic. But they sing and they dance and they fall in love, floating through the stars at the Griffith Observatory and swinging under lamplight as the cityscape glows sunset orange like the 20th Century Fox logo.

As much as La La Land evokes the past, the one obstacle Mia and Sebastian's relationship faces is contemporary: They both have big dreams they haven't begun to realize, and they could be getting in each other's way. Sacrificing happiness at the altar of personal ambition is not a common theme in classic Hollywood musicals, which gives Chazelle an opportunity to update the genre with a conflict many career-minded couples will understand. That trace of uncertainty and melancholy—of time and fate as a wedge as well as a bond—may not have the profound depth of a Demy musical, but it broadens the film's emotional palette considerably. Otherwise, it would be relentlessly sweet, like a big dog licking your face for two hours.

Perhaps La La Land will lead to a genuine musical revival, with more stars and talented artisans committing to the Technicolor escapism of old. For now, though, the film is a testament to how wonderful musicals can be when they're conceived directly for the screen. Risk-averse studios keep turning to Broadway hits for safe bets, but film and theater are not compatible mediums, at least without some directorial imagination. Building on his two previous efforts, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and Whiplash, Chazelle deftly integrates color and camera movement with the choreography of his performers, until all the elements are in pleasing harmony. Not many have Chazelle's talent for summoning a dead form, but for as long as it lasts, La La Land is one hell of a séance.

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