"Presented in Cinemascope" are the first words you see in La La Land. It's a touch that broadcasts the film's retro aspirations - CinemaScope was the aspect ratio of many an epic widescreen movie between the 1950s and 1960s.

Funnily enough, at La La Land's Auckland critics' screening, that antiquated ratio threw the multiplex projectionist, who had trouble fitting the image to the screen's movable margins. And the thud of the blockbuster action next door frequently interrupted the quieter moments.

It would seem in modern cinema, LLL arrives as a misfit.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in the film, La La Land.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in the film, La La Land.

Yes, it's a musical and those come along pretty frequently at Oscar time, mostly lifted from the Broadway stage and festooned with stars hitherto unknown for their singing abilities.

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And yes, the stars of LLL - Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling - fit that category. But Stone has done Cabaret on Broadway and Gosling is a former member of the Mickey Mouse Club ... so all things considered, more than qualified.

Actually they're both good when it comes to holding a tune in a movie of jazz-powered numbers.

But as an all-original movie musical, LLL is still a misfit, and a beautiful one, in the way director Damien Chazelle's brilliant breakthrough previous but much humbler Whiplash was.

That was about a young jazz drummer throwing himself into being the best at a dying art. This movie shares much the same character motivations between Gosling, a pianist hoping he can convince the world there is still a place for classic jazz, and Stone, playing an aspiring actress swinging between auditions and serving coffee at the studio commissary.

They meet. Or at least they exchange rude gestures in a rush-hour on-ramp traffic jam which, because this is a musical, turns into a show-stopping opening number entitled Another Day of Sunshine. The song and its performance set out LLL's other mission - other than just to make the world safe for musicals - to be a love letter to crazy ol' Los Angeles.

The pair meet a few more times. Including at a party where Gosling is moonlighting as a keytar player in an 80s cover band, in a scene which momentarily risks this becoming The Wedding Singer II.

They dance - in a one-take wonder on an LA hilltop above the glow of the city; and later at the Griffiths Observatory where they ascend, Fred and Ginger-like, into the planetarium's stars.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in the film, La La Land.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in the film, La La Land.

Which might sound pretty fanciful, all directorial flourish and fabulous to look at, and catchy, but really? Isn't this cake decoration stuff the reason the golden age of screen musicals started dying a natural death about the time CinemaScope was invented?

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Except, well, LLL, knows all this.

It is in CinemaScope, but the important ratio here is more than height and width. Yes that gives the leads plenty of room to dance but Chazelle makes sure the characters have enough room to breathe and feel as though they exist now, even in a movie paying homage to the past.

It's in the mix of a movie which might start with a chorus line number but knows music has moved on - enter John Legend in a supporting role as a soul-R&B star who offers Gosling's character a sideman gig.

It's in the rhythm of the leading pair's first steps in romance, which feel actually romantic.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star in the film, La La Land.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star in the film, La La Land.

This takes the chemistry between Stone and Gosling - already apparent to two previous movies - and ignites it into something magnesium-bright.

It's an iridescent sparkle that lasts all the way to the clever, perfect ending of a clever, perfect film.

Verdict: A thoroughly modern musical which reminds what great cinema song and dance movies can be.


Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
Director: Damien Chazelle
Rating: M (offensive language)
Running time: 129 mins