By Michael Phillips 2017-05-26

Chicago Tribune

4 stars

How to write about "La La Land," the year's most seriously pleasurable entertainment, without making it sound like nostalgic goo? Let's give it a go. A five, six, seven, eight!

This is a wonderful, imperfect but, as recently noted in this sentence's first adjective, wonderful new musical full of actual human feeling (something unlocatable in "Moulin Rouge," for example). The 31-year-old writer-director, Damien Chazelle, has made a throwback/shoutout to musicals of various eras and directors past, deploying cinematic languages all but lost in the early 21st century.

Ryan Gosling stars as a stubbornly idealistic jazz pianist and aspiring club owner. More crucial to the film's success, Emma Stone co-stars as a striving, occasionally employed LA actress who, because she must eat, works the counter at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers backlot. Like so many around her, she wonders how much longer she should chase dreams that will not return her calls. Stone is a revelation. After years of solid work in various genres, she comes alive here as never before.

There are more substantive and important cinematic achievements to consider in this end-of-year crunch time of quality, films with fewer flaws or sticking points. But I've seen "La La Land" three times now, and when it's good, it's great. I suppose it helps if you're a cheap trick for musicals going in. The movie begins with a fantastic production number called "Another Day of Sun," with Michel Legrand-tinged music, beautifully orchestrated as if the last few decades had never happened, by composer Justin Hurwitz (talk about a jazz-based gift for melody!).

That opener is staged in dazzlingly long takes, stitched digitally to look like a single event, in which motorists stuck on a traffic-clogged LA freeway leave their cars and pour out their show business aspirations while dancing, skateboarding, fan-dancing, stunt-biking, you name it. Then, in a crane shot Chazelle steals from Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen and every other director who knew how, and when, to deploy a crane shot, we see the entire, makeshift chorus in a great swerve of movement on the overpass. If "La La Land" worked on surge pricing, the way Uber does, people would gladly pay 20 bucks just to see the opening number again, right away.

This is Chazelle's third excellent movie in a row, following his 16 millimeter black-and-white debut musical "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench" (2009) and the tightly coiled, almost comically intense "Whiplash" (2014). At its best "La La Land" hits three, four, five bells at once, reminding us of the multilayer satisfaction a musical can provide. Back in 1974, after Vietnam and two months before President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, the MGM musical compilation tribute "That's Entertainment!" found a large audience, its poster declaring: "Boy. Do we need it now." Just as Depression-era audiences thrilled to "Footlight Parade" and musicals that could turn ashen reality into pearly fantasy, and sometimes throw the two together, "La La Land" comes along at a time in our nation's existence when we appreciate the distraction. The kicker: Chazelle actually makes us care about the lovers in his slight, bittersweet but enormously heartfelt story.

Sebastian (Gosling) and Mia (Stone) meet, briefly and testily, during that traffic jam, then encounter each other again at a supper club (J.K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for his work in "Whiplash," plays the jazz-hating owner) where Sebastian tries out his own material against his boss's wishes. Third time's the charm: At an outdoor party somewhere in the Hollywood hills, months later, Mia and Seb meet again. This time it's different. He's still a bit of a pill, and she busts his chops. But something's in the air.

Here's my chief complaint about this movie I adore. When Gosling dances in his first duet with Stone, to the song "A Lovely Night" at a Griffith Park overlook, you sense the performer working very, very hard and studiously to get the choreography right, the same way he so obviously rehearsed so hard to learn the notes on the piano he plays on screen. (Sometimes it's actually him playing; other times, the way Robert De Niro played the sax in "New York, New York," he's being overdubbed.) Thing is, Gosling doesn't convey much of anything facially when he's dancing, beyond a generalized sort of diffidence. (Miles Teller, an early contender for the role, probably would've been better.) Stone, by contrast, activates every single beat emotionally, without overselling a speck of Mandy Moore's exuberant choreography.

"La La Land" brings these two together, and then conspires to keep them apart, in scenes floating from season to season. Seb takes a job with a band on tour (John Legend plays his old pal, now a successful sellout in traditionalist Seb's eyes). Mia mounts a one-woman show about her life thus far, at one of LA's many forlorn 99-seat theaters. The key to the emotional core of "La La Land" can be found in the scene where Seb comes back from the road, surprising Mia with dinner, and before long they're in a painfully plausible argument about where they're headed as a couple. The ultimate fates of these two may be the stuff of wish fulfillment, but it's mixed with a welcome dose of maturity.

The film sags a bit in its middle section, where the songs recede and the concerns become more mundane and workaday by design. I don't love the Griffith Park Observatory dance sequence, which trades on imagery (dancing on air) others have explored, back to the days when Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen did it in "The Belle of New York." An early dialogue passage between Gosling and Rosemarie DeWitt (who plays his no-nonsense sister) sets up certain plot elements a bit clumsily.

But there are countless rewards, small and large, on the other side of the ledger. At the climax, Chazelle pulls it all together with a what-if musical fantasy evoking visual and conceptual aspects of the "American in Paris" ballet, the "Girl Hunt" sequence from another, even greater Minnelli film, "The Band Wagon," the "Broadway Ballet" from "Singin' in the Rain" and more. It's magically all of a piece. Chazelle's heart, and color sense, really belongs to the Jacques Demy musicals "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "The Young Girls of Rochefort," with their working-class daydreams of true love and narratives of missed opportunity. Plainly composer Hurwitz loves the varied textures and instrumentation of the Legrand scores in those films, and his contributions to "La La Land" cannot be overestimated.

Stone is spectacular, and she's reason enough to see "La La Land." Chazelle is a born filmmaker, and he doesn't settle for rehashing familiar bits from musicals we already love. He's too busy giving us reasons to fall for this one.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some language).

Running time: 2:08

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