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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

‘La La Land’ is, simply stated, pure magic

Even if you aren't a fan of movie musicals, you might find yourself charmed by "La La Land," Damien Chazelle's tribute to classic Hollywood. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

The movie “La La Land” opens with a scene familiar to anyone who has ever driven in Los Angeles: a freeway traffic jam. Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s camera swoops down, flying over, around and between the cars, giving us and up-close-and-personal look at the drivers and passengers, occupied in various ways as they deal with being in what is now a virtual parking lot.

Then the unusual happens: One of them begins singing. But not just to herself. She begins singing out loud. And soon she emerges from her car and starts dancing. Then everyone around her follows suit, turning into an impromptu flash mob that performs what evolves into an extended dance routine involving dozens of people, all captured in what looks like a single take and that is as carefully choreographed as anything Busby Berkeley ever imagined producing.

And my immediate thought was, “Oh, no! A musical? Seriously?”

Well, yes, seriously. In so many ways, “La La Land” is a throwback to all those classic musicals of the late 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, though it clearly shows the influence of such later productions as Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret.”

It tells the story of two young Angelinos, caught up in L.A.’s eternal lure: the prospect of success in the entertainment industry. Mia (Emma Stone) wants to be an actress, though the closest she has come to snaring a role is working at a coffee shop on the Universal lot while enduring the never-ending, and often demeaning, audition process.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), meanwhile, is a jazz musician who wants to open his own club, though the closest he has come is working as a piano player in a restaurant lounge where his boss requires him to play Christmas carols.

Told in seasonal chapters, beginning in winter – which explains the carols – “La La Land” is, above everything else, a romance. Mia and Sebastian encounter each other by chance, first in the opening-sequence traffic jam, then at the lounge where Sebastian is playing, then at an outdoor party where Sebastian is working with an ’80s-era cover band.

And the attraction isn’t immediate, though we know it will take. This is, after all, Gosling and Stone, two of today’s more charismatic movie stars. So even as they play coy – walking to their cars, singing and dancing to a song called “A Lovely Night,” a tune by the movie’s composer Justin Hurwitz – the ironic twist they give the song’s words are underscored by a clear attraction. Their story is just beginning.

Which the superbly talented writer-director Chazelle – who gave us last year’s intense study “Whiplash” – uses as a format to blend the traditions of the past with the sensibilities of now. In so many ways, “La La Land” is pure fantasy, not just with dancers flying through the air but with alternate realities playing out so as to give us at once a feel both for real life and a satisfying emotional catharsis.

In the end, “La La Land” is one of those rare achievements: a movie dream within a dream.