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Ooh, ‘La La Land’

Retro romance: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling get into the swing of it in Damien Chazelle’s colorful musical, “La La Land.” (IMDb)

L.A., they say, is a state of mind, and the haters with quizzical brows and exaggerated eye rolls who hurl the epithet “la la land” to dismiss the place just don’t get it. They feel superior to Angelenos in thinking that the city is make-believe and its denizens fantasists.

We in Los Angeles know better. We know that those who use the term never have experienced the city at magic hour when the tail lights on the exit ramps twinkle like double strands of rubies underneath a bougainvillea sky.

Happily, director Damien Chazelle also knows better. He gets it. In his exhilarating and swoony “La La Land,” a modern love story told in song and dance, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as Seb (short for Sebastian) and Mia. Both are artists whose ambitions get in the way of romance. And vice versa. He is a jazz pianist who pays the rent by playing in a rock cover band. She’s an aspiring actress working as a barista on a studio backlot.

As the characters sway in transfigured time through treasured L.A. locations such as Angels Flight, the Watts Towers and the Griffith Observatory planetarium, “La La Land” is like a documentary of a fantasy: realistic but sublime, and all captured in lollipop color by cinematographer Linus Sandgren. The spectrum here isn’t red-yellow-green-violet, it’s vivid cherry-lemon-lime-grape.

We meet Seb and Mia a beat or two before they meet each other. In the film’s first sequence, it’s the morning rush hour on the merge from the 105 East to the 110 North. Traffic is bumper to bumper. Rather than just sit there, drivers opt for an exuberant dance on car roofs and hoods in the film’s opening number, “Another Day of Sun.” (The movie’s songs of longing are composed by Justin Hurwitz and its dances staged, with naturalistic brio, by Mandy Moore, the choreographer known for her work on the reality TV show “So You Think You Can Dance.”)

Amid this burst of joy, Sebastian, trapped behind Mia’s car while she is distracted from the wheel, honks and maneuvers his retro convertible past her sedan and flashes his displeasure.

Retro modernism is “La La Land’s” visual theme — and its narrative conflict. Seb is a jazz purist (not unlike the music taskmaster played by J.K. Simmons in Chazelle’s previous film, “Whiplash”). When Seb is hired by Keith (John Legend) to join his jazz fusion band, Keith confronts him: “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?”

That question challenges this film that looks back to the midcentury musicals Gene Kelly made with Stanley Donen and Jacques Demy (uninterrupted, full-body dance shots) as it introduces some new moves. The latter include special effects and editing, especially the sequence in which Seb and Mia seem to dance on the stars projected on the planetarium ceiling.

Mia’s artistic ambitions are embryonic, not as fully developed as Seb’s. We see her auditioning for parts she is better than, but how does an untried actor demonstrate her range when the role’s range of emotion is so narrow? Through the film’s songs, especially “City of Stars” and “The Audition,” the actors express the characters’ inner thoughts and their body language, sometimes awkward, mostly graceful.

If songs permit characters to express feelings that dialogue cannot, musicals also reveal their intentions in how the characters dance. Who leads? Who follows? Are they in sync or at odds? The subtle shifts of parity and control illustrate how, though Seb and Mia aim for a relationship of equals, each sometimes needs the support and energy of the partner to go forward. Among the film’s many pleasures, its anatomy of a relationship is lovingly conceived and executed.

Chief among its delights, however, are Gosling and Stone. They surrender themselves to the characters, body and soul, which in turn makes it easy for the moviegoer to surrender to them.

For the musical-averse, no worries. Your manhood won’t atrophy if you see this film. You’re likely to recognize in Seb a better version of yourself.

And for musical lovers, let me tell you: When the film ended, I floated out of the theater misty-eyed, cockeyed and starry-eyed. My feet haven’t touched the ground since.

Carrie Rickey
In addition to writing film reviews and essays for Truthdig, Carrie Rickey has been a film critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Village Voice and an art critic at Artforum and Art in America. Rickey has…
Carrie Rickey

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