Musical lovers, take a bow. Your favorite art form is having quite the cultural moment.
On Broadway, of course, we’ve got the “Hamilton” phenomenon, making the stage musical feel more vital and relevant than it has in years. And we have popular live TV revivals like “Grease” and “Hairspray.”
Now, in time for Christmas, there’s the eye-popping, heart-lifting “La La Land,” which both honors and modernizes the screen musical to such joyful effect that you might find yourself pirouetting home from the multiplex.
OK, perhaps we exaggerate. “La La Land,” created by the copiously talented writer/director Damien Chazelle and featuring the dream pairing of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, is not for everyone.
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Perhaps you don’t like music, or singing, or dancing. Or romance, or love, or beautiful people falling in love. Or sunsets, or primary colors, or pastels. Or stories. Or, heck, the movies themselves. If you don’t like any of those things, maybe stay home.
Otherwise, be prepared: By the end, something will surely have activated those tear ducts. The one complaint I overheard upon leaving the film was: “I didn’t have enough Kleenex.”
The first obvious gift of “La La Land” is its sheer originality. Let’s start with the music. Unlike in so many other films, nobody else’s hits are used here. The affecting score is by Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul (also getting kudos for Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen.”)
Our setting is Los Angeles, and so it begins – as it must – on a jammed freeway. But unlike Michael Douglas in “Falling Down,” the drivers here simply brush off their frustrations, exit their cars, and break into song and dance.
This virtuoso number, “Another Day of Sun,” which was filmed on a freeway interchange with about 100 dancers toiling in sizzling temperatures, establishes Chazelle’s high-flying ambitions. It also tells us we’d darned well better be ready for people to break into song – because that happens in musicals. And it introduces our main characters.
Sebastian (Gosling) is a struggling jazz pianist, with stubborn dreams of opening his own club. Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress, working as a barista while auditioning for TV parts. They clash on the freeway. She gives him the finger.
They have a second bad meeting at a piano bar. Finally they meet a third time, at a party. Suddenly, they find themselves on a bench overlooking the Hollywood Hills at dusk. And then … they dance.
Is it Astaire and Rogers (or Charisse)? Yes and no. Stone and Gosling are charming musical performers, but way less polished and ethereal than their cinematic forbears. This human quality in their first duet makes us root for them.
And we keep on rooting. It’s hard to imagine more perfect casting here. Gosling’s Sebastian is suave and sexy but also ornery and unsure of himself; Stone’s Mia is warm and ebullient but also fretful and self-doubting. They need each other to chase their respective dreams.
But what will success mean, and can they possibly achieve it together? It’s this pillar of the story that lends it a very modern, melancholy bite.
Chazelle, 31, shows his love for cinema with references both sly and overt to classics like “Singin’ In the Rain” and Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” And then there’s the nod to “Rebel Without a Cause,” with a scene at LA’s Griffith Observatory.
There, at a place built to watch the stars, the two dancing lovers actually lift up into them.
It’s corny, sure, and gorgeous and romantic. As Sebastian says to his sister earlier in the film, “You say ‘romantic’ like it’s a bad word!” In a musical, romantic is NEVER a bad word.
Some people resist musicals because in real life, people never break into song; they just speak their feelings. To which musical lovers say: “Exactly! And this is why we need musicals.”
Long live the musical. Bring enough Kleenex.
La La Land
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and John Legend
Director: Damien Chazelle
Rated PG-13 (some language)