“La La Land” reinvents the traditional big screen musical by playing it straight. The original songs and new story feel like something Gene Kelly would approve of but not quite recognize as the form he helped perfect in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Aspiring actress and barista Mia (Emma Stone) and serious jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) can’t help but meet cute. He honks his horn at her during a traffic jam. She flips him off. They meet again in a restaurant. She’s about to compliment him, he’s rude to her. Worse yet they bump into one another at a pool party where he’s playing with a 80s cover band, playing a-ha covers for be-bopping drunks. Third time is a charm and they finally connect, for real. Flirting, dancing and singing they build a relationship as they construct careers in modern day Los Angeles.
The real and the unreal collide in a film that values naturalism in an unnatural genre. Mia and Sebastian burst into song, dance on city streets but do so in the most unaffected of ways. It looks and feels like an old-school musical—the camera dances around the actors and it’s always magic hour—but Stone and Gosling are very contemporary in their approach to the material. Woven into the romantic, joyful script are real comments on the setting—“That’s LA, they worship everything,” says Sebastian, “but value nothing.”—a sense of the pleasure and pain that accompany passion, whether its for a person or a career and melancholy when things don’t quite work out. It’s a movie that dances to it’s own beat. By times bright and garish or atmospheric and moody, it’s never less than entertaining.
Gosling is a charming leading man and equal match for Stone whose remarkable face and expressive performance give the movie much of its heart. Director Damien Chazelle is clearly smitten with his leading lady, allowing his camera to caress her face in long, uninterrupted close-ups.
From a trickily edited opening song-and-dance number in a traffic jam to a spectacular dance among the stars to heartfelt human feelings, “La La Land” doesn’t just breathe new life into an old genre it performs CPR on it, bringing its beating heart back to vibrant life.