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

Dale Robinette

A man and a woman stumble on a hilltop view tailor-made for two. While the twilight city view glimmers picturesquely behind them, they bicker, gnash at each other and resist their obvious attraction until they finally must admit to it. But not a word of this exchange is spoken – it's all underfoot, expressed in their dancing.

In the aforementioned A Lovely Night duet, La La Land leads Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling – playing a disheartened barista/aspiring actress and a cynical jazz-snob/pianist, respectively – sing as they dance, to coyly undermine the ironic declarations ("I'd never fall for you at all") of the jazzy ballad. While the lyrics insist they feel "less than nothing," their magnetic sways, shadow footwork and obvious mutual delight suggest the opposite is true.

Damien Chazelle's melancholy musical is more than an effort of fancy footwork, though – it is a remixed throwback that expertly mines the musicals of the so-called golden age, when top-billed Hollywood dancers had their legs insured by Lloyd's of London, RKO Pictures made big white sets, and Vincente Minnelli's surreal and self-referential take on the form saturated MGM with a Technicolor rainbow. (The film also embraces the later French New Wave's candy-coloured love of these American genre films.) With equal parts nostalgic homage and self-reflexive reverie, Chazelle has us dancing around the subject of romance, once again.

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With Los Angeles as its sound stage, La La Land combines the stylized, naturalistic and surreal elements of its predecessors. As Stone and Gosling waltz among the stars of the Griffith Observatory's night sky, for example, the glossy, twinkling backdrop is a nod to both Never Gonna Dance in Swing Time and the famous Fred Astaire/Eleanor Powell tap sequence in Begin the Beguine from Broadway Melody of 1940. Gosling and Stone's stroll on the vintage lamppost-dotted sidewalk of the historic Colorado Street Bridge is the L.A. equivalent of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron along the Seine in An American in Paris. And on and on.

The time-worn tropes of the golden-age musical involve simple mistaken identities and missed connections, with an equally straightforward structural formula: a meet-cute swiftly followed by conflict, pursuit, resistance, retreat and reconciliation (usually in the form of a big production-number finale). The visceral pleasures of the genre – be it Astaire's aristocratic grace or the balletic athleticism of Kelly paired with gamine Caron or sylphlike Cyd Charisse – aren't far removed from the moves of La La Land, or even those of Joe Manganiello, in sweats and a Metallica muscle shirt, dry humping a fridge to mollify an oblivious convenience-store clerk in Magic Mike XXL.

Unlike revue-style musicals with splashy numbers for their own sake, Astaire and his long-time collaborator-choreographer Hermes Pan created dance numbers to replace regular scenes and advance, rather than interrupt, the plot. Another of the genre conventions is that an early, pivotal number secludes the leads from others – like in a practice room or stage; in the context of the putting-on-a-show musical they're usually positioned as rehearsal numbers to further emphasize the intimate nature of the moment. It's courtship, not performance.

In its meet-cute duet, La La Land does this with a wink to another entertainment-set musical The Band Wagon, where Astaire's in conflict with the prima ballerina Charisse, who's been cast as his lead. Where Gosling and Stone are headed to their cars after leaving a raucous party, in The Band Wagon number Dancing in the Dark, it's a set of Central Park as Astaire and Charisse wander away from the couples on a crowded, outdoor dance floor to a quieter spot. Their dance begins organically when a walking step becomes a dancing step. She does a soft pirouette in her classical ballet style, he responds with his own swingier version, and they face off with uncertainty. As the fluid big-band melody is punctuated by trumpets, their pas de deux becomes a psychological compromise – one that includes both jetés, chassés, back bends and a dance lift off a bench until they glide away silent, satiated and sighing into a horse-drawn carriage holding hands.

Aficionados often note The Gay Divorcée or Top Hat as the best Astaire/Ginger Rogers outings; in the former, the dramatic and tender Night and Day number finds a thoroughly wooed Gingers falling for Fred and it's basically both foreplay and love scene on four feet. They go toe to toe again with gentle pirouettes of persuasion – and just as Chazelle does with La La Land, they are observed head to toe, with few to no cuts. ("Either the camera will dance, or I will," Astaire once told the studio.)

One of my favourite examples of dance as narrative allegory, though, is in the lesser-seen Roberta (1935). After chanteuse Rogers rehearses her song I'll Be Hard to Handle, she chats with Astaire, an old flame who's in town (she's also tying her shoelace, as if you needed hint). The two former sweethearts reminisce ruefully but with affection until Astaire punctuates his first zinger with a flourish of steps in her direction. The conversation naturally moves to the dance floor. It's the friendly, lightly barbed banter of exes, with a little begrudging flirtation, but through footwork of staccato taps and teasing pauses. After another affectionate jibe, when Rogers moves to playfully smack him, Astaire catches her wrists, slides his hands down her arms to circle her waist and leads her on a few turns.

The physical flash of recognition is palpable and undeniable as they fall into step, accelerating like the glee of an increasingly excited conversation. Astaire's solo steps around Rogers get quicker and more insistent, and she replies by contradicting him with foot stomps. The music swells and their dancing gets frenzied – they're as angry as they are excited, until they fall spent and laughing into a chair. Just as in La La Land, suddenly we're forced to ask the question: What was it they were fighting about, again?

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