In possibly the most sublime moment in the often sublime modern movie musical La La Land, directed by Damien Chazelle, Emma Stone is out to dinner in Los Angeles (she’s with a rather colorless date and a similarly colorless couple). A strain of piano music comes trickling in from another room. Stones’ eyes, which even when looking at nothing suggest two brilliant beacons on a smallish lighthouse, brighten in recognition — if anything, her whole body seems to brighten. We watch her lifted from the torpor of dinner and onto a higher plane by love: for the piano theme, and for the pianist playing it.
At another point in the film, she and that pianist, Ryan Gosling, will literally be lifted up into sky as a sort of astral consummation of their relationship. That’s lovely, too, of course, but it’s a special effect. What Stone accomplishes in that moment in the restaurant is done with more ineffable magic, a combination of her own airy skill and the love the camera can’t help but la-la-lavish on her: She doesn’t sing, but she doesn’t have to. It’s as if she herself were the melody.
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Any good movie musical (and quite a few bad ones) will make us accept the pretense that a song rises in the body like sap in a tree and then blooms as flowers and leaves. But, as La La Land demonstrates, a movie musical starring Emma Stone has imaginative and emotional powers beyond even that.
La La isn’t revolutionary — it has its share of retro pleasures. A bittersweet variation on boy-meets-girl, it consciously mines movie-musical history and conventions. The opening dance number, set in a traffic jam on the freeway, pays homage to the 1967 Catherine Deneuve musical The Young Girls of Rochefort (overall, the movie owes even more to Deneuve’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg). And there’s a lavish moment near the end that recalls the dreamy swoon of An American in Paris.
It’s as if someone tapped into the unconscious of TCM host Robert Osborne and rifled through his movie-musical memories, moving backward from about 1970.
But La La Land always feel emotionally direct and natural, rather than cloying, playful or cute. If it’s meta, it’s also millennial. The movie is shot in beautiful, widescreen color, which gives modern Los Angeles some of the shimmering visual magic of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, but it’s about fairly ordinary life in a fairly ordinary place. La La Land doesn’t seem too many stones’ throws from Netflix’s snug-ugly Love.
Everything in the movie, though, depends on the chemistry — unquestionable, believable, potent in its simplicity — of Stone and Gosling as an aspiring actress and a frustrated jazz musician. They fall in love because that’s what a movie musical expects of them, they sing (nicely) because that also comes with the territory, but the rhythms of their performances are always surprising, never forced or false, and always in sync.
As an actress playing an actress, Stone gets to be the more responsive and more expressive of the two — she’s been given the single most dramatic number, near the end, a soliloquy she sings spotlighted against a simple dark backdrop. (What do you think, Mr. Osborne? The “My Man” finale from Funny Girl, maybe?) Gosling, on the other hand, is an actor playing a misunderstood, introspective artist. Gosling doesn’t mess around: If a role calls for understatement, he’ll be found somewhere beneath the floorboards. His performance, which is quietly graceful, crystallizes in a tiny, tiny, ambiguous smile.
The score (by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) is charming, witty and delicate. The loping romantic ballad, “City of Stars,” is especially good. The movie’s one mistake is to allow screen time for a-ha’s “Take on Me,” played by a “covers” band at a party: It’s close to reckless, letting an audience hear that old piece of ear candy. It’s as if Stephen Sondheim decided to toss “Thriller” into Sweeney Todd. (Dec. 9, PG-13)