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'La La Land' Dances to a Classic Beat

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone channel Fred and Ginger

(Video) La La Land Movie Trailer: A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.

Rating: PG-13

Run time: 2 hours 8 minutes

Stars: Ryan Gosling, J.K. Simmons, Emma Stone

Director: Damien Chazelle

En español |  They don't make movie musicals like they used to.

But then, "they" aren't the young writer-director Damien Chazelle, who just did.

His La La Land is a big, old-fashioned, toe-tapping, earworm-sowing, break-into-song extravaganza. And if its eminently appealing stars — Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone — aren't quite Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell (Fred's best dance partner), well, neither has anyone else been for the last 70 years.

In other words, this is the musical you forgot you were waiting for.

La La Land announces its arrival with what has to be the longest opening number in movie history — by which I mean linear distance, not time elapsed. The song unfolds in a traffic jam on an endless L.A. overpass. As the camera sweeps, strolls and soars among the snarled cars, their occupants take to dancing, singing and generally exulting in the sun. It's a brilliant bit of fair warning from Chazelle, alerting us that the tunes in this musical will not arrive in natural segues. Instead, expect characters to burst into song here with all the subtlety of J.K. Simmons hurling that cymbal across the room in Whiplash, Chazelle's previous film.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in LA LA LAND

Dale Robinette/Courtesy of Lionsgate

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in "La La Land"

Soon enough we meet our two lovers: He's a jazz pianist stifled by his job at a piano bar, while she's a struggling actress whose days are filled with audition rejections. They meet cute after he's fired (by club owner Simmons, in a fun cameo). Then they dance around each other (literally) and eventually fall hard, both fully aware they're not meant for each other.

The whiff of hopelessness undergirding their relationship evokes not Singin' in the Rain but One from the Heart — the equally artful but decidedly dark musical from Francis Ford Coppola. That's one of the film's few concessions to the age in which it was made. Another is the casting: Neither Gosling nor Stone possesses the singing or dancing chops to make their musical numbers truly soar. A pair of top-tier Broadway stars might have elevated the film's most romantic moment — a sweet song-and-dance along a quiet, lamplit street above L.A.'s twinkling lights — to the terpsichorean heights. But any film investor offered a La La Land starring, say, Tony Award winners Sutton Foster and Billy Porter might simply have quoted Fred Astaire in Shall We Dance: "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off!"

Which is not to say Hollywood should revert to cranking out assembly-line musicals reminiscent of the Busby Berkeley era. Quite the contrary: Part of the irresistible appeal of La La Land is the sense that the film resulted from a million random sparks of artistic genius — from Chazelle's fanciful vision to composer Justin Hurwitz's sparkling melodies to Linus Sandgren's lush photography, key elements flaring together at a unique time and place.

La La Land is an unrepeatable creative flourish. Do what you can to treasure it now.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.