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Review: 'La La Land' is perfect marriage of style, story

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in "La La Land."

LIONSGATE

By KATIE WALSH | Tribune News Service | Published: December 6, 2016

In relationships, and in music, it’s all about the timing. So Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” is the perfect marriage of style and story - a good old fashioned musical about the ups and downs of one love story that struggles to stay in tempo. It’s also a sealed-with-a-kiss love letter to the city where it’s set, and the unabashed dreamers who inhabit the environs of Los Angeles.

Written and directed by “Whiplash” wunderkind filmmaker Chazelle, “La La Land” is a meticulously crafted and choreographed musical, and Chazelle pulls out every old school trick in the book, from the Cinemascope placard that opens the film, to camera irises transitioning in and out of scenes, to a culminating dream ballet that rivals “An American in Paris.” There’s irony in the notion that an independent film would borrow so heavily from the style of a classical Hollywood studio musical, and that it feels so radical in doing so.

There’s an exhilarating energy that whisks the film along, from the meet-cute during a traffic jam on the freeway that breaks out into a soaring primary colored dance number. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress trying to break into the industry, while Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz-obsessed pianist. They can’t stop running into each other around town, and when they finally, truly connect during a screening of “Rebel Without a Cause” (and subsequent Griffith Observatory jaunt), everything seems to fall into place.

But they find themselves only in step for a time. With Sebastian on tour with his new band, headed up by Keith (John Legend), and Mia pouring herself into her one-woman show, the couple is pulled in different directions - one entering into the system while the other exits. Despite their obvious passion, can they make it work?

The choreography of cameras, bodies, sets and editing is so carefully crafted and perfectly placed that the missed cues of Mia and Sebastian’s missed calls and late arrivals as they try to make it work almost lack the spontaneity necessary to fully buy in. “La La Land” can feel like a fluffy celebration of style over substance. But the culminating last five minutes of the film - a nostalgic “what if” fantasy - are so thrillingly emotional that it more than earns the two hour lead in.

Stone is the beating heart of the film, the dogged dreamer who turns away from her passion when it hurts too much, but secretly never stops hoping. There are shades of an over-the-top actressy hamminess in her performance, but it almost works for the character, who is, of course, that. It’s not naturalistic; in fact the effort shows, which in turn lays bare Mia’s desperation. Gosling is a suave and sophisticated partner, soft-shoeing in spats. If his knack for song and dance comes as a surprise, you must have missed the early ’90s reboot of “The Mickey Mouse Club” where he hoofed alongside the likes of Timberlake and Spears.

As a candy-hued musical valentine to Los Angeles, “La La Land” is both a crowd-pleaser and a locals-only inside joke - title cards announce the seasons, since we’d never be able to discern them by the perpetually sunny skies. But it’s universal in its themes of love, loss and ambition, and ultimately, a toast to the ones who dream.

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LA LA LAND

3 out of 4 stars

Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend J.K. Simmons. Rosemarie DeWitt, Tom Everett Scott

Directed by Damien Chazelle

Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes

Rated PG-13 for some language.

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© 2016 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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