Movie Review: Original Musical ‘La La Land’ is One of the Best Movies of the Year

Have you ever walked down the street, emotions silently bursting, wishing the outside world would acknowledge your current state of being through song? That very feeling is part of what made Singin’ in the Rain’s titular number such a lasting treasure: it captured the perhaps stifled desire we have to sing, dance, and jump in puddles during a moment of euphoria. But if Singin’ in the Rain forever put its stamp on precipitation, La La Land has similar ownership of the stars.

Written and directed by Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle, La La Land tells the story of Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician with plans to open his own club. Both are struggling, working menial jobs as they set their sights on big dreams — dreams that both bring these two L.A. lovers together, and threaten to tear them apart.

An original musical, La La Land conjures up memories of the Golden Age of Hollywood, with frequent mentions and nods to films such as Singin’ in the Rain, Casablanca, Rebel Without a Cause, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Bursting with vivid colors, this film is a technicolor wonder; each shot is so artfully crafted that any random film still would be worthy of being framed on your wall. But above all that, there’s that music. Composer Justin Hurwitz, along with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, have created a soundtrack that begs to be listened to on repeat. With six original songs and a love theme that’ll bring tears to your eyes, the music captures the heart of La La Land: both happy and sad; nostalgic and modern. But always, always emotionally affecting.

For instance, when a familiar tune makes Mia realize that she wants to be with Sebastian, she runs out of the restaurant she’s in with a flourish, dashing down the street with her face flushed with joy and her emerald green dress billowing out behind her. It’s not a musical number, but her obvious abandon mixed with the swelling music accompanying her run utterly captures the aforementioned feeling we all crave that the world is playing that music just for you. And it’s a moment to behold.

Neither Gosling nor Stone are particularly strong singers or dancers, which is best demonstrated by their big number “A Lovely Night.” So why is that moment one of the most delightful of the entire film? It’s that pairing: pure charm and sincerity. Stone and Gosling bring an Everyman quality we didn’t know we needed to the scene. As Mia responds to Sebastian’s flirtatious crooning about the lack of spark between them, she slowly takes off her blue heels, only to replace them with tap shoes. It’s a playful move, one that can’t help but make you smile. And as soon as those tap shoes come on, we’re transported. This scene, like the rest of the film, moves from the real world to the musical world with the grace of Fred Astaire.

But back to the stars. After Mia and Sebastian’s first date, the film embraces a moment of magnificent magical realism, in which the characters literally float up into the air and waltz among the stars while visiting the planetarium at the Griffith Observatory. It’s a moment so breathtaking that — for a few minutes, at least — it temporarily erases all the negativity that clouded most of 2016. La La Land makes the case that the closest we’ll ever feel to being inside a musical is being in love. And that just may be good enough.

Rating: A

La La Land is now playing in Miami theaters.

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