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Review: ‘La La Land’ makes movie musicals matter again

  • SUMMIT ENTERTAINMENT

    Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone fall in love in the musical “La La Land.”

“La La Land”

****

(PG-13, 2:08)

The first time I watched Damien Chazelle’s musical, “La La Land,” I thought a lot about how it worked, about its form, his craft and how the lickable candy-colored costumes bring to mind both M&M’s and Jacques Demy. I thought about how Chazelle and his stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, fit into the history of the film musical. When I went to see “La La Land” again, I just fell into it, gratefully. I surrendered. Afterward, I realized that this must have been what it was like to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers during the Great Depression.

In “La La Land,” Chazelle has a shot at something that has eluded auteurist titans like Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Ford Coppola: to make musicals matter again. For decades, the genre that helped Hollywood’s golden age glitter has sputtered, resurfacing in Broadway adaptations like “Into the Woods” or sneaking in sideways in the “Magic Mike” movies, where the music is canned and the dancing grindingly dirty.

A musical with big numbers, intimate reveries and adult feelings, “La La Land” is a boy-meets-girl tale with early-21st-century rhythms (mostly good, even if its white stars are nestled, more self-consciously than naturally, in a multicultural world). It grapples with love between equals in a story about an aspiring actress, Mia (Stone), who meets an ambitious musician, Sebastian (Gosling), Los Angeles-style during a traffic jam on a freeway: He honks his horn at her; she flips him the bird. It takes awhile for them to get together — they meet, they retreat, repeat — only to end up swaying in that fading, soft-light time known as the magic hour, tapping and twirling yet never quite touching. After another encounter, they at last move as one — s’wonderful, as Astaire crooned.

Contemporary American movies could use more s’wonderful, more music and dance, and way, way more surrealism. They’re too dull, too ordinary and too straight, whether they’re mired in superhero cliches or remodeled kitchen-sink realism. One of the transformative pleasures of musicals is that even at their most choreographed, they break from conformity, the do’s and don’ts of a regimented life, suggesting the possibility that everyone can move to her own beat. It’s enormously pleasurable when an evening stroll turns into a rhythmic saunter and then bursts into dance — think of Gene Kelly walking, tapping, stomping and exulting in the rain.

“LA LA LAND” integrates its numbers, even the most fantastical, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a guy to tap-dance on a park bench or a woman to dream herself into a waltz.

Mia and Sebastian meet early but don’t connect until they bump into each other at a party. Later, while walking to her car, they end up in Griffith Park, a swath of Los Angeles that, like everything in the city, is part of movie history. (“A rock is a rock, and a tree is a tree. Shoot it in Griffith Park!” is an old industry maxim.) As the sky glows pink, Mia sits on a bench to change out of her heels. All at once, they’re both wearing spectator shoes and, as suddenly, they’re side by side. Their feet start moving together, and the rest follows.

In classic style, Mia and Sebastian somehow, amazingly, know how to dance together — they shadow each other in sync — without holding each other. As in the gazebo scene in classic musical “Top Hat,” which brings Astaire and Rogers’ characters closer and closer, the park dance in “La La Land” turns flirting into a performance, complete with a little tapping, a little twirling and several neatly executed barrel turns from Gosling.

Throughout “La La Land,” Chazelle engages distinct genre tropes — the not-quite-touching dance, the constantly interrupted kiss, the miracle of synchronicity — to playful effect, allowing him to transform the everyday into what he calls the dramatically or comically “epic.”

Musicals are for idealists. One of the pleasures of classic film musicals is the chance to watch bodies become extraordinary — strolling and then singing and soaring — often in stories that suggest that with some choir practice and maybe an Arthur Murray dance lesson or two, you could soar, too.

Musicals are liberation with a beat. When Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow,” she was telling her audience that it would transcend its terrible times. (No wonder gay men embraced her.) When the Nicholas Brothers danced in “Stormy Weather,” they offered a profound vision of the U.S. that few old Hollywood movies did: two brilliant black men who, despite the racial inequities of their country, could embody the sublime better than anyone else could.

Still, I wonder if contemporary moviegoers might be too knowing, cynical, segmented or self-absorbed to be transported by — and believe in — two people who spontaneously sing and dance as one. I hope not. Because while “La La Land” engages with nostalgia, it also passionately speaks to the present. We know men and women can go toe to toe, but can they still dance cheek to cheek?

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