Like a gift from the movie gods, here comes Damien Chazelle’s dreamy “La La Land,” right when a lot of us are in desperate need of some light. It’s a valentine to cinema, splashed with primary colors and velvety L.A. sunsets and wistful close-ups of beautiful faces with cheekbones you could hang dreams on.
And it’s that potentially most joyous of genres: a musical, in which speaking and walking are elevated into song and dance – their colors made deeper, their emotions brighter.
That’s what “La La Land” does. It slips us in and out of a world more glorious than our own. Its story is a simple one: A struggling jazz pianist, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, never handsomer), meets an aspiring actress named Mia (Emma Stone, never lovelier) in contemporary Los Angeles; they banter, they fall in love, they sing and dance. Not all is sunshine; listen to the sweet melancholy in Sebastian’s tunes (the achingly romantic score is by Justin Hurwitz), reminding us that love sometimes plays in a minor key.
Owing its most obvious debt to 1950s MGM musicals and the tuneful films of Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “The Young Girls of Rochefort”), “La La Land” feels both epic and intimate, as the best movie musicals do. Its stars, with their poster-ready faces and whispery little singing voices, aren’t Broadway belters but actors who gently tell a story through song.
Stone, in one scene, auditions for a dream role with what begins as a soft, quiet song – “Here’s to the ones who dream / Foolish as it may seem .” She sings as if on the verge of tears, as if she can barely get the words out – and then, as the song goes on, she finds strength and jumps off a cliff with her voice; she soars, then lands lightly, the memory of flight in her eyes.
That not every note or dance step is perfect isn’t the point; it’s that the actors find perfection – and magic – in the moment, in that flight. Watch Gosling, on a twilit pier, picking up a hat he finds there and tossing it into the air with impossible grace; for just a second, he’s no longer mortal. (He’s become a musical.) Or Stone, strutting in a cobalt-blue dress with her three roommates on an L.A. street; she’s a star with her chorus, ready to take on the world. Or the two of them, whirling in a Fred-and-Ginger-worthy waltz in a late fantasy sequence designed both to dazzle our eyes (hello, “an American in Paris”) and break our hearts.
I got so happily lost in the movie – which I’ve seen three times now – that I didn’t care if I ever found my way home, preferring to live in “La La Land.” (Reading over notes taken during my first viewing, I found “Oh yeah.”) It’s a small miracle that this movie, in these days of sequels and superheroes and franchises, ever got made. Here’s to the dreamers.
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