Review: Prepare to be enchanted by magical musical 'La La Land'

Brian Truitt
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If you can make it through the opening — with dozens of people singing and dancing in bumper-to-bumper traffic and a samba party breaking out on a freeway — then you’ll be all in for what comes next in the effervescent and dazzling La La Land.

The romance between Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) has some ups and downs in 'La La Land.'

Writer/director Damien Chazelle improves on his splendid 2014 film Whiplash by crafting a fabulous old-school Hollywood musical (**** out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expands to additional cities Dec. 16) in modern-day Tinseltown with joyous tunes, exceptional choreography, a feel-good love story and a hint of bittersweetness to keep all that wonder grounded. A clear favorite in the Oscar best-picture race, La La Land is both delightful confection and life-affirming food for the soul.

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The romance revolves around struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone), who toils as a barista between frustrating auditions, and jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a cranky anti-authoritarian with no patience for Christmas standards or 1980s new-wave pop. (“Requesting I Ran from a serious musician is just too far,” Sebastian grumbles, keytar in hand.)

Instead of a meet-cute, Mia and Sebastian have a couple of tense run-ins before they figure out there’s a spark: Their mating dance involves tap shoes and a skyline view of the city. Their relationship goes through seasons of change as they face the question of realizing their individual dreams or giving them up.

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The movie is boosted by a buoyant score by Justin Hurwitz, who also did the music for the original songs (with Tony Award-nominated duo Pasek and Paul handling lyrics) such as Sebastian’s melancholic City of Stars and Mia's ballad Audition (The Fools Who Dream), a show-stopping ode to "painters and poets and plays." They even have a ringer: John Legend impresses in a small role as a bandleader who recruits Sebastian for his new group.

Keith (John Legend) recruits Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) to play keyboard in his band.

On paper, Stone's Mia and Gosling's Seb are seemingly a disaster waiting to happen, but her earnest optimism and his cool demeanor fit together like puzzle pieces. They can duet like nobody’s business, but their solo performances are wowing, too, especially Stone’s awards-ready turn and the way she conveys so much of Mia's mood and personality with just a facial expression.

While Whiplash hinted at his potential, Chazelle’s latest has the young filmmaker at the height of his prowess, conducting the actors, songs and spectacle like a veteran maestro. In La La Land, he has created a tribute to an era where musicals and jazz ruled but also posits in powerful fashion how each needs to evolve for  its own relevance.

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The movie’s sweeping yet intimate nature carries through to the unexpected but still fulfilling conclusion. By then, you’ll be wondering when the inevitable Broadway adaptation is coming.

We’ve seen the cinematic ingredients of what makes La La Land special before, but what makes this journey so magnificent — and guaranteed, this will be many people’s new favorite movie — is how they combine to remind us all of the world-changing ability of artists and dreamers.

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