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Is “La La Land” This Year’s High Note?

December 11, 2016

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You know how Americans flocked to musicals to escape the grim realities of the Great Depression? I have a feeling the same thing is going to happen again for more than half the country’s voters who are going through their own private great depressions after the presidential election. And the movie that will benefit from it? La La Land.

This isn’t just a movie for the liberal media elite, however. An unabashed throwback to the boy-meets-girl tuners from the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’ll appeal to traditionalists as well: It makes American musicals great again.

The plot is deceptively simple: A struggling actress (Emma Stone) and a frustrated jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) fall for each other in modern-day L.A. but find their romantic dreams and artistic aspirations aren’t always in harmony. With scenes of Stone enduing the humiliation of auditions and Gosling’s passionate speeches about the importance of pure creativity, La La Land speaks directly to performers, the largest voting bloc of the Academy, so expect the film to do very well on Oscar night. It also should be a favorite at the SAG Awards and well-poised in the Comedy/Musical categories at the Golden Globes, where it won’t have to compete with the dramas Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, this season’s other heavyweights.

La La Land confirms writer-director Damien Chazelle as the most exciting American filmmaker since Quentin Tarantino. His debut, Whiplash, vibrated with musicality and won an Oscar for J.K. Simmons, who has a wonderful scene here as a restaurant owner who fires Gosling. Chazelle goes on literal flights of fancy in La La Land, and there are dance sequences that transport viewers into a fantasy realm the way Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly did in their heydays.

Gosling and Stone make the most of their limited vocal ranges — he seems to channel Chet Baker at times — and they’re impressive hoofers (very little seems to have been done by doubles). In their third film together after the charming Crazy Stupid Love and the plodding Gangster Squad, they’ve got chemistry to burn.

The rest of the ensemble, which includes RoseMarie DeWitt as Gosling’s buttinsky sister and John Legend as a fellow musician who tempts him to sell out, don’t have much to do, but they do it very well. The real star here, in addition to Stone and Gosling, is Chazelle, who also co-wrote many of the film’s pleasing songs.

There are still a few 2016 films left on my to-see list, but it’s hard to imagine one more profoundly charming than La La Land. Does it have what it takes to win Best Picture? I think so. It’s a love letter to Hollywood — both the city and the industry — and the movie all of us need right now.

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