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Alex Beam

‘La La Land’ — the movie the cool kids love to hate

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) sing and dance their way through “La La Land.”
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) sing and dance their way through “La La Land.” Dale Robinette/Summit Entertainment/Summit Entertainment

LET’S CELEBRATE SOMETHING really beautiful. Let’s celebrate “La La Land.”

“La La Land,” the ebullient boy-meets-girl-and-it’s-mostly-all-good musical set in Los Angeles, is the movie the cool kids love to hate. It may well pick up some Oscars later this month. But that will only intensify the cognoscenti’s disdain.

How do they love to hate it? Let me count the ways.

They hate that male lead Ryan Gosling isn’t a mash-up of Gene Kelley and Frank Sinatra. They hate that love interest Emma Stone isn’t the laboratory spawn of Barbra Streisand and Ginger Rogers. They really, really hate the retro jazz — sorry, “jazz” — that lies behind Gosling’s dream of reviving old-school combo swing in the City of Angels.

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“A muddle of clichés,” is the put-down that launches former New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff, writing in Slate, into a none-dared-wish-it-longer vivisection of Gosling’s “LLL” intentions: “He wants to save jazz by opening a club for ‘pure jazz’ — a laboratory for his ideas, which he claims to know are the right ideas, though we don’t know exactly what they are.”

The movie’s been deemed sexist because Stone’s character, Mia, is less forceful than Gosling’s Sebastian, and of course it’s racist, too. “If you’re gonna make a film about an artist staying true to the roots of jazz,” writes Ira Madison III at MTV News, “you’d think that artist would be black.”

The super-cool kids — I’m thinking of The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane — love to tear down the movie’s magnificent opening scene, a six-minute-long musical celebration of LA freeway gridlock. Lane and others allege that director Damien Chazelle stole the rollicking freeway idea from the ferry-borne opening dance number of Jacques Demy’s 1967 movie “The Young Girls of Rochefort.”

OK, except that Chazelle has acknowledged his debt to “Rochefort,” and cites at least four other movies as influencing the magically choreographed, rocktastic song-and-dance extravaganza.

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That’s what “LLL” supposedly doesn’t do. Let’s think about what it does do. Somehow, in the age of high-decibel nothingburgers such as “Transformers: The Last Knight,” the 32-year-old Chazelle shook down a Hollywood studio for $30 million to make a romantic movie musical with no sex scenes and with two stars not known for their singing and dancing abilities.

You know what? Perhaps by dint of relentless coaching and some forgiving sound mixes and camera angles, Stone and Gosling pull it off. No, they are not Astaire-Rogers-Sinatra-Streisand, but they are more than acceptable substitutes. Last time I checked, I’m not Ernest Hemingway, and yet here I am, stringing the sentences together in semi-coherent fashion.

What I loved most about “La La Land” was its celebration of color, freedom, and imagination. I still maintain that one of the best recent novels I’ve read is Jennifer Egan’s “The Keep,” because its subject is the deadening of our imagination. The keep in question is a creepy castle whose owner wants to restore the lost world of mental conjury, where “Christ came to dinner. Witches and goblins were hiding in corners. People looked at the sky and saw angels.”

That would be Chazelle’s crazy screen confection, where lovers can waltz up and down walls, where, improbably, old-fashioned jazz gets a second life, and where, instead of smashing their heads against their dashboards, Angelenos burst into song when the freeways stall out.

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What a great time to imagine a freer, more colorful world, wouldn’t you agree? Imagination is a drug, The New Yorker commented in reviewing Egan’s novel. We need to take more of it.


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.