La La Land’ revives the classic musical, with some success

Emma and Ryan, together again.
Mike D'Angelo

Three and a half stars

La La Land Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend. Directed by Damien Chazelle. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday at Downtown Summerlin and Green Valley Ranch.

Every so often, Hollywood attempts to revive the full-fledged musical, but it isn’t easy. While Westerns are equally moribund as a genre, making a new one only requires securing Monument Valley locations plus assorted props and costumes; no special skill set is required, apart from maybe quickly learning how to ride a horse. The great Hollywood musicals, on the other hand, were made possible by a stable of singing and dancing talent that no longer exists—or, at least, that no longer overlaps with A-list movie stars. You can have big names or you can have dazzling musical talent, but nowadays you really can’t have both.

La La Land sensibly chooses actors who’ll get butts in seats, which is why it never quite manages to achieve the purely rhythmic transcendence to which it clearly aspires. It’s a lot of fun, though. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play aspiring LA artists—she’s an actress; he’s a jazz pianist—whose relationship first blossoms, then founders as they struggle to realize their respective dreams. La La Land is at its best when it feeds on the spiky chemistry between the two. Everything nonmusical sparkles.

As for the musical numbers … well, they’ll trigger some viewers’ nostalgic warm feelings, anyway. Both Stone and Gosling have decent singing voices (though Gosling’s is pretty thin) and respectable moves, but neither is good enough even to have been cast in the chorus during the musical’s heyday. And director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) doesn’t always trust the form, choreographing long routines as a single shot in which it’s the complex camerawork, not the dancers, that’s meant to impress. La La Land mostly succeeds by virtue of its sheer sincerity and eagerness to please, tempered by a melancholy undercurrent. It’s a welcome throwback, but also a reminder of what we’ve permanently lost.

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