“La La Land” An Ambitious, Optimistic Dream World

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Peter Cushing isn’t the only venerable film institution revived this moviegoing season. Cushing, who died in 1994, is digitally recreated as the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin in the “Star Wars” film “Rogue One.”

laIt’s harder to say just when the movie musical died. Was it the 1960s, when bloated spectacles like “Paint Your Wagon” hit the screen?

When last sighted, movie musicals like “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Mama Mia,” “Hairspray,” were adaptations of stage plays.

The most recent successful original musical was “Moulin Rouge,” which used pop songs to anchor it to modern sensibilities.

But as realism and formal storytelling sensibilities emerged audiences rejected the flights of musical storytelling represented.  Every so often someone tries it again; the latest is the ambitious and delightful “La La Land” by “Whiplash” director Damien Chazelle.

Musicals are often boy meets girl stories and set in the world of show business: “La La Land” is guilty as charged on both counts. Ryan Gosling plays a jazz pianist and Emma Stone is a wannabe actress.

When first meet them in a LA traffic jam, he’s trying to learn a piano riff on his tape player, she’s rehearsing lines for an audition and flips him the bird when he honks the horn. We follow their individual stories until they merge again, and co-exist for a while until living on dreams is no longer enough.

It’s a simple arc within a flawlessly executed artistic experiment sustained by a visionary sense of fantasy. The traffic jam when people leave their cars for a balletic choreographed crowd sourced singing scene setter  jump starts what is to come. Some of the songs by Justin Hurwitz will send you humming out of the theater, others are musical conversations that work best in context. The settings are city streets with cracked asphalt and oil stains, but also the rarefied world of studio back lots and magic time lighting.

One template here is “Singin’ In The Rain,” Gosling even spins around a lamp pole.

But Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were dancers who acted; Gosling and Stone are actors who sing and dance, and their sometimes humble efforts anchor the film to the imperfections of reality.

In their prime musicals were a dominant art form, singing and dancing fantasies that were a form of escapism during the Depression and World War II. “La La Land” comes at a strange time culturally, artistically and socially and creates an invitingly optimistic dream world just when we need it most.

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