The idea of “movie magic” is hardly new, but these days, with so many films focusing on long, gruelling, painful stories a la The Revenant, it can feel special, almost thrilling, to watch the antithesis. And so, La La Land sashays onto the screen like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—and pays them homage, too.
From Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) comes a modern-day musical made for film: there is singing, and dancing, and piano-playing, and that slight over-the-top-ness so prevalent in stage productions. But somehow, amidst all the toe tapping and finger snapping, Chazelle manages to make the musical genre seem kind of cool.
Undoubtedly stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have something to do with that as well, as the two play an aspiring jazz pianist and actor respectively, who fall in love on the warm, cruel streets of Los Angeles. The original songs are catchy and cute, and the dance moves—it’s not a musical without a dance break or two, after all—are perfectly old Hollywood. The film takes place in the present day, though, iPhones and all, and still manages to create a special little bubble world all its own.
The film, which opens in Canada on Christmas Day, has already received widespread recognition, including the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, seven Golden Globe nominations, and eight Critics’ Choice awards. And no wonder: the actors deliver great performances (that’s really Gosling playing the piano), and the aesthetic alone, with dreamy LA landscapes and brightly coloured costumes, is enough to earn it a watch. But really, where La La Land excels is in the realm of pure movie magic: the kind that makes you smile without realizing it, the kind that takes you out of your own universe and into a make-believe one, the kind that makes you forget about your cellphone for a few short hours. The rich hues, the visual storytelling—it’s unadulterated joy. Musicals are always about suspending disbelief, and it is in this cheerful outer-space of dancing your troubles away that La La Land lodges itself into memory.
That does not mean the film is one big happy face, of course, and it does have its moments of discomfort and heartbreak. The problems the characters face are legitimate, and the emotions they convey are real. But there is beauty in melancholy, and a song or two to sing about it, too.