ReelBob: ‘La La Land’

By Bob Bloom

Like gossamer wings, the movie musical is a fragile and delicate entity.

Even more so than other genres — including horror, fantasy, superhero and science fiction — the musical relies on a total suspension of belief by an audience to succeed.

After all, how many times have you seen someone break into song or dance in life?

“La La Land” engages filmgoers from the outset. It opens on a bumper-to-bumper Los Angeles freeway, where drivers spontaneously erupt into singing and dancing while waiting for traffic to move.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) has created an original feature —  with music by Justin Hurwitz and songs and lyrics by Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — that, at times, has the garish palate of a 1940s 20th Century Fox Technicolor extravaganza, but the sensibilities of the classic MGM musicals of the 1950s, such as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Band Wagon” and “An American in Paris.”

Like most musicals, at its core, “La La Land” is a boy-meets-girl story.

But, it is also much more. It’s a story of dreams and dreamers, of chasing your ambitions and, when finally achieving them, the high personal cost.

Chazelle has interwoven the innocence and idealism that permeated films in the genre with a contemporary, albeit, realistic vibe that skirts cynicism without passing over the line.

“La La Land” tells the story of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a dedicated and idealistic jazz musician, and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress.

As is customary in the genre, their first, very brief encounters go badly, before they meet at a pool party. They talk, share their hopes and gradually fall in love.

As singers and dancers, Gosling and Stone are no threats to Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse or Betty Grable.

Their voices are adequate and their ranges limited. As dancers, their routines are not complicated — the steps are rather basic and routine.

Ironically, that is one of the charming aspects of “La La Land”; Gosling and Stone’s limitations seem to ground them in a reality to whom audiences can relate.

The songs, while not memorable, are bouncy and catchy; the choreography, at various junctures, are homages to the Astaire-Charisse “Dancing in the Dark” number from “The Band Wagon” and the timeless Kelly-Leslie Caron ballet finale from “An American in Paris.”

That “La La Land” ends on a bittersweet note is fitting. The world we live in today is not a fairy-tale realm with happy-ever-after endings. And Chazelle is wise enough to realize that.

What his final reel conveys is that dreams can come true, but the price in achieving them can be steep.

Bob Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and Rottentomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at bobbloomjc@gmail.com or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom.

LA LA LAND
3½ stars out of 4
(PG-13), language

 

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