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A bright, breezy and beautifully crafted retro musical
OF all the piano bars in all the towns in all the world, Mia walks into Seb's. This scene, near the beginning of Damien Chazelle's dazzling retro musical La La Land, is one of several that will stick in the minds of viewers, as much for its poignancy as its pertinence to the plot. The film, a bright, breezy and beautifully crafted throwback to the days of the studio musical, when every scene was shot on a sound stage and the real world was somewhere over the rainbow, will appeal to old-fashioned sensibilities in the best possible way.
Chazelle showed some serious filmmaking chops with Whiplash (2014), a thriller about a talented drum student and the drill-sergeant of a teacher who pushes him to the edge and beyond. Now, the intensity has been toned down but the entertainment meter is way up in La La Land, a revisionist take on Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and 50s and a commentary, as the title suggests, on the nature of the entertainment business in Los Angeles, where "they worship everything and value nothing".
From the memorable pre-credits opening - a song-and-dance extravaganza shot on a Los Angeles freeway during a traffic jam - to the way primary characters break into song without missing a beat, the film moves seamlessly between conventional narrative and stylised romance.
As befits a typical boy-meets-girl story, the dialogue is sharp and snappy but there are also quiet, heartfelt moments when the film shifts gears and we're transported to a different place. Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz (the lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) nail the mood with catchy musical numbers - the kind that tend to be performed on Oscar night.
Budding actress Mia (Emma Stone) and aspiring jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) meet (sort of) on the aforementioned freeway, and then twice more (sort of) soon after at a bar and pool party, where he's reduced to playing in an 80s cover band to make ends meet. She's a barista at a café in the Warner Bros lot, serving coffee to starlets and rushing to auditions where she gives her all but no one pays any attention.
They eventually get to know each other better during a stroll to a park bench with a fabulous view of the LA sunset and segue into - what else but a charming duet, complete with tap-dance routine? Needless to say, they're hooked - and so are we.
They encourage each other to pursue their individual dreams: she wants to write a one-woman play while he wants to "save" jazz and start his own club - but as two hopeless romantics in a cruel, cynical world, crushing disappointment is never far behind.
The screen chemistry between Stone and Gosling is so believable that viewers won't flinch at a fantasy sequence in the planetarium of the Griffith Observatory, where they give new meaning to the phrase "dancing with the stars".
Sebastian introduces Mia to the intricacies of jazz and then teams up with former schoolmate Keith (John Legend) to start a touring band. It's not exactly his type of music, but the fans seem to love it. As his career prospects start to improve, Mia's take a downward turn and she returns to her hometown. What does fate have in store for her - and for them?
Stone and Gosling make an enjoyable couple and are thoroughly convincing, with Stone giving a standout performance that is sure to gain traction with Academy voters. In a memorable scene towards the end, the camera lingers on her expressive face in close-up, and she delivers a knockout punch.
The film's recurring signature tune, performed by Sebastian, is both melodic and memorable: "City of stars, are you shining just for me?" Chances are you'll be humming it long after the house lights come up.