Triumphant ‘La La Land’ demonstrates the power of dance to tell a story

“La La Land” opens with a huge dance number set on an L.A. freeway. (Dale Robinette/Lionsgate)

“It feels really nostalgic to me,” frets a self-conscious Mia (Emma Stone) in “La La Land,” after reading her one-woman play to her boyfriend, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). “Do you think people are going to like it?”

Writer-director Damien Chazelle must have harbored the same doubts as he began working on this romantic musical film about love, art and ambition. Despite its contemporary Los Angeles setting amid Priuses and cellphones, “La La Land” is deeply nostalgic, drawing inspiration from Hollywood’s Golden Age, from Thelonious Monk and other jazz greats, and from the ruminative lyricism of French filmmaker Jacques Demy and his 1960s works.

So when Sebastian answers Mia with a defiant “F— ’em!” it feels like Chazelle’s manifesto, a cri de coeur that echoes through this astonishing, poignant and beautifully realized film. For there is nothing tentative about “La La Land,” especially concerning its exuberant dance numbers. Like the great musical maestros Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen, Chazelle put his faith in dancing as good storytelling. As a result, dance makes a triumphant return as an expressive cinematic language in “La La Land,” in ways big and small.

The dance numbers are so physically rapturous and vicariously thrilling, they almost lift your heart out of your chest. There’s the exhilarating opening sequence during a traffic jam on an L.A. freeway, where drivers spin and stomp on the roofs of their cars while a BMX biker and a freewheeling skateboarder surf the concrete barriers. A hallucinatory pool-party number includes nods to Jerome Robbins’s “West Side Story,” with pretty young partygoers snapping open fans and Stone grabbing her skirt in mambo moves from the Rita Moreno playbook.

It’s during a starlit tap dance in the Hollywood Hills that Sebastian, a jazz pianist, and Mia, an aspiring actress, try to ward off their feelings for each other and then succumb to them. The irresistible couple finally fall in love during a waltz reverie at a planetarium that sends them spinning, airborne, through the stars. Later, a stylized dream sequence recalls Gene Kelly’s pursuit of Leslie Caron in the ballet that closes “An American in Paris.”

These episodes, when naturalism falls away and the characters’ ineffable spiritual yearnings take over, are more than visually and dynamically exciting. Accompanied by Justin Hurwitz’s soaring music, they’re deftly crafted windows into an emotional state.

Chazelle spoke about his respect for the power of movie musicals at a screening of “La La Land” at the Middleburg Film Festival. “What makes musicals unique and beautiful,” he said, is that “your emotions can upend reality. If you feel enough, if you’re heartbroken enough, you will break into song and a 90-piece orchestra will materialize.”

Director Damien Chazelle, left, actress Emma Stone and public radio host John Horn in conversation after a screening of “La La Land” at the Middleburg Film Festival in late October. (Middleburg Film Festival)

Stone and Gosling embody Mandy Moore’s choreography with great charm and energy, and they make it part of their character development, adding subtle shadings to the way they dance that tell us about their inner experience. Stone looks different when she’s tap-dancing with Gosling on a hillside overlooking the city than when she’s dancing with him in the dream sequences or…