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Concert Review: ‘La La Land’ Live is a Meta, Magical Experience at the Hollywood Bowl

“‘La La Land’ in Concert: A Live to Film Celebration” kicked off its tour at the Hollywood Bowl over the weekend.

It was a meta moment: a film about making it in showbiz opening at a legendary venue usually reserved for the most successful acts.

Of course, Best Picture Oscar gaffe withstanding, “La La Land” has had an incredibly successful year. Damien Chazelle’s valentine to Los Angeles and movie musicals has developed a cult following, as evidenced by the sea of yellow dresses — similar to the worn by Emma Stone in the film’s posters — at Friday’s and Saturday’s performances.

Indeed, Stone herself was in attendance the second night, as was Chazelle and other celebrities including Topher Grace.

They joined more than 17,000 fans to see the film’s Oscar-winning composer, Justin Hurwitz, conduct a full orchestra as the film was projected onto a giant screen.

As a concert, the score is the star. Dancers and singers appear on stage in several numbers, but never as Stone’s Mia or Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian. It was a smart choice, since the show’s focus is the music, not the acting.

As for the music itself, attendees are welcomed with “Overture,” a piece that was ultimately dropped from the film, to set the mood. Then “Another Day of Sun” — the film’s infamous freeway opening — plays. Many of the performers in the film reprise their roles for the live show in the catchy number, which features everything from a marching band to hula hoop dancer.

A large ensemble also appears for the following number: “Someone in the Crowd.” But after that, the show settles into a more intimate feeling, with pianist Randy Kerber doing all the heavy lifting, from “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme” to “City of Stars.” Kerber even switches to synth for the upbeat “Start a Fire” (alas, he doesn’t play “I Ran” or “Tainted Love” from the pool party scene, but one man can only do so much).

It’s the grand orchestrations that are truly magical, from “Planetarium” (where Mia and Sebastian waltz among the stars at Griffith Observatory) and as “Epilogue” swells to “The End.” It doesn’t hurt that fireworks punctuate the climaxes, from Mia and Sebastian’s first on-screen kiss to the film’s finale.

And of course, there’s the jazz, with legendary trumpet player Arturo Sandoval leading a talented ensemble that’s put through its paces. As Hurwitz says as a disclaimer at the top of the show, “the movie’s going to keep going and it’s not going to stop, so we have to keep up.”

It’s an ambitious undertaking, given the many genres of music in the film, and in general it succeeds. Very rarely does the live band fall behind the film, and it’s especially impressive when the live cameras inside the Hollywood Bowl show close-ups of the live musicians’ hands matched in perfect synchronicity with the ones on screen.

It’s also worth noting the lead actors vocals are isolated and amplified, which works for Stone (notably in her nervy “Audition”) but not always for Gosling (who seems to get progressively flatter in each rendition of “City of Stars”). It’s particularly jarring to go from Gosling’s weaker vocals (in the aforementioned “City of Stars”) right into to John Legend’s rich ones (in “Start a Fire”).

But that’s one of the few criticisms in what is otherwise a magical live musical production for a movie that celebrates the magic of live music. But try not to wrap your head around that and just enjoy the show.

“La La Land” in Concert: A Live to Film Celebration will tour in the U.S. as well as Mexico, Canada, and select cities across Europe.

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