La La Land ****

Musical about dreams and falling in love is a masterpiece and the likely Best Picture Oscar winner.

Is it worth $10? Yes

What a beautiful, special film “La La Land” is. It is simultaneously a throwback to classic Hollywood musicals and a modern romance told with style and confidence. To see it is to embrace a tale of dreams, love, heartache and triumph, and experience a level of filmmaking that is superior to most of what’s released today.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) has taken the classic Hollywood musical and set it in the present, yet he’s captured the spirit and essence in a transplendent way. There’s a grand musical score, singing and dancing, but at its heart it’s a love story about artists pursuing their dreams. Set in Los Angeles, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is an aspiring jazz pianist, and Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress. They’re meant for each other, but of course don’t realize it at first.

As they fall in love, it’s like a dream. She has a boyfriend (Finn Wittrock) who’s not right for her. Sebastian invites her to see “Rebel Without A Cause,” which leads to the Griffith Observatory. It all feels surreal, and is shot that way. Chazelle isn’t channeling reality here, he’s conveying how it feels to fall in love. Visually, the screen is colorful and dynamic, the editing flows gracefully, and the music is unforgettable, especially “A Lovely Night,” “City of Stars” and “Planetarium,” during which Sebastian and Mia dance amongst the stars.

Eventually the reality of being struggling artists takes over, and the tone gets serious. Sebastian wants to open his own jazz club, and is all about the purity of his art – to him it doesn’t matter if he has an audience, because it’s all about the music. Mia wants to be a Hollywood star, and believes she needs an audience to validate her work. But saving money, surviving auditions, and remaining determined in the face of adversity can be extraordinarily difficult, and is something even falling in love can’t alleviate. Where the story goes is honest and true, culminating in a fabulous ending that might just bring you to tears.

Neither Gosling nor Stone sings or dances particularly well, though most would agree he’s the better dancer and she’s the better singer. This isn’t important, though. What is important is that they share an easy chemistry that makes them ideal for one another on screen, and because of this we root for the relationship to work.

And it does work, just not necessarily in the ways we expect. What’s fascinating about the film is the way it pays homage to old Hollywood while telling a different and unique story all its own. Their relationship evolves truthfully; note the way Chazelle uses upbeat song and dance numbers early on, but later only features duets and solos. The universality of falling in love is something we can all share, but making it last depends entirely upon the couple.

It’s hard to decide what I loved most about “La La Land.” The opening musical number, entitled “Another Day Of Sun,” is done in a nearly five minute, seemingly unbroken take, and is an astounding feat of choreography and camera work. The songs are sweet and tender and serene and perfect. The performances are appropriately adorable, abrasive and transcendent. The directing feels elevated far above what this material could have been. You know what? I’m not going to choose what I loved most. I loved all of it.

Did you know?
Mandy Moore from “So You Think You Can Dance” created the choreography; the cast rehearsed for 3-4 months before shooting began beginning in May 2015.

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