From a veracious standpoint, the musical in film–not Broadway, where it is often met with immediate respect–is considerably shunned by the average movie-goer and sometimes, unfairly, just pages of a chapter in the wider scope of film history. (Unless, of course, observed by an actual cinephile or Turner Movie Classics enthusiast). Musicals also inherently revel in camp and camp has been forevermore regulated to the gays and comfortable in their whimsy, heterosexual persons. Simply, the musical is an underrated cinematic narrative.
Film adaptations of Broadway classics such as Mamma Mia!, Les Miserables and Chicago did well at the box office, and this was likely because a handful these were the few musicals that already achieved rare pop culture status beyond the stage. And when matched with major star power such as Anne Hathaway and Catherine Zeta-Jones, both of whom won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the last two adaptations listed, viewers are willing to give the musical another chance. But new musicals, freshly crafted for the screen, are harder to come by. I hate to say it, as Pitch Perfect was a major draw, exceeding its $17 million budget and issuing a sequel. Not every new musical should be solely cast solely of Young Hollywood ingenues singing Blackstreet hits from 1997 (Hey, that was my song too).
This is where La La Land comes in. Starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, lead stars who are likable, talented, and arguably bankable. But no one’s heard of the story or music La La Land contains. What are we in for from a film that looks like an ode to old Hollywood and MGM classics? Should we just 1944’s watch Meet Me In St. Louis instead?
Do yourself a favor and watch both.
Before getting to how visually marvelous La La Land is, as its homage to old Hollywood magnetism is unabashed from beginning to–outstandingly–the end. It is important to note that beyond the lights and cinematography, the film thankfully has an identity of its own. Damien Chazelle‘s script and direction are memorable for its multi-layered deconstructions of dreams, ambition, and tradition. These topics are not misconstrued as simple or tired. Further infiltrating the madness, Chazelle sincerely regards the hope and heartache of another classic matter, that of the struggling artist. The world has never been without them. Stone as Mia, an actress going on audition after audition, and Gosling as Sebastian, a pseudo-curmudgeon of a pianist and jazz music geek, with compassion as real-life actors, represent the “fools who dream.”
“When you see something that is brand new, that you can’t imagine, and you think ‘well thank God this landed’, because I think a movie like La La Land would be anathema to studios. Number one, it is a musical and no one knows the songs.” – Tom Hanks, via Deadline
Mia and Sebastian (or Seb) are healthily obsessed with what they feel are their callings. Their chance meetings and then increasingly amorous relationship are what keeps the other one going in a town they want so desperately to succeed in, but kind of, incontrovertibly, dislike for its harsh realities. What is interesting about the Mia and Sebastian dynamic is that the presence of sex between them, on screen, is not a factor. Instead, the focus is on the other side of relationships, the actuality of a support system within the love and romance. The script elegantly served The $64,000 Question of if the people or person we love the most truly have our backs when they’ve fallen beside the wall, upon feelings of giving up for the 250th (last) time?
In La La Land, Mia and Sebastian trust each other, but that doesn’t deflect the duo from disagreements or insecurity. Their most compelling debate is money and pragmatism versus dreams and faith. Alternately, they struggle with the discord, though Sebastian is the first to cave into the beast. When Sebastian reunites with musician friend Keith, played by John Legend, he immediately knows that Keith’s band The Messengers’ style of auto-tune, pop jazz, is not at all for him. He forges anyway because the offer of steady work is as exhilarating as playing original tunes at an esteemed jazz bar. Mia, on the other hand, is more starry-eyed. Quitting her day job at a Warner Bros. studio lot coffee shop, she becomes completely dedicated to writing her one-woman show. All the while, two try to carol and whisper in sing and tap dance to the answers they want in how to maintain and win in spades.
What becomes the musical’s second moment of truth is when Keith berates Sebastian for wanting to prevail in tradition. He asked: “How you gonna be a revolutionary being a traditionalist?” For the nostalgic at heart, that comment drops like a ton of bricks on the old soul, young at heart spirit. Is Keith right? Is nostalgia, be it admiring Ingrid Berman like Mia does, wanting to play jazz in a bar like it’s the Harlem Renaissance like Sebastian, honest inspiration or a hindrance to completion of goals and purpose? The argument was heavy as nostalgia is, incidentally, a huge selling point for Chazelle’s movie and currently in fields like fashion and makeup. We romanticize the past because “way back then” and “the good ol’ days” are often simpler than the present, a sensibility we got until it’s gone. Keith wasn’t wrong to ask, even if his opinion bounced a little dismissive of influence. His auto-tune jazz jingles started somewhere (aka 1980s synth pop).
In La La Land, despite the fairytale backdrop, the heart of the matter here are two things: love and art. Balancing both is a challenge. And to what degree does a heart on the sleeve become a heart for sale in the labored quest to see your name in lights?
Visually, let’s quickly talk about how extraordinarily stunning the movie is to witness. Do not wait for Netflix to view this one. Vivid and imaginative, use of every color and undertone in a rainbow palette and textures are achieved here. Towards the end of the film where Stone and Gosling virtually waltz from L.A. to Paris, define the visceral act of being transfixed. (And script-wise, will have you racing to put together what exactly is going on here).
A quote from The New York Times is necessary to back up how in awe you will be at the ending score and dance sequence: “[Damien Chazelle] outdoes himself in the last 20 minutes of “La La Land,” and outdoes just about every other director of his generation, wrapping intense and delicate emotions in sheer, intoxicating cinematic bliss.” Accurate. (Chazelle is the same screenwriter and director behind 2014’s bated breath provoking music school drama Whiplash). There are a lot of young, on the rise filmmakers out right now, and Fruitvale Station was close. But dammit, will La La Land have you looking up “How to Be a Filmmaker” in the days after you’ve seen it. And that’s considering before the finale, there is a scene where Mia and Seb float into a celestial purple sky inside Los Angeles’ famed Griffith Observatory that would’ve made Walt Disney squeal. (The exterior shots are in tribute to 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, that also shot scenes there).
Gosling is heartfelt, but Stone is hands down resplendent as Mia. The songs made for the film are a tad nondescript, though the scores are wonderful. Lyrically, the most significant original track is during Mia’s third audition and is a paean to the dreamers, including herself, aptly called “Audition”. It’s an absolutely soaring moment. Stone will be nominated for her second Academy Award come early 2017 and possibly take home the trophy. (Expect a lot of nominations). The ballroom and tap dancing are clearly newly learned concepts for Stone and Gosling, and because of their tender feet, add to the overall charm of La La Land. When was the last a 2010s movie featured the old fashioned manner of courtship and movement on the dancefloor? Refreshing.
To appreciate, not plainly grasp, La La Land is to currently be in the thick of your own journey towards greatness, wherever they may reside and become fruition. Chazelle beautifully explored and affirmed one of the largest fears and tall tales of life, the pursuit of following dreams, drawn with the effect of the underrated format of the musical. Plenty of films have exploited the concept of broken dreams. That awful boulevard where the forgotten and lonely and hostile were once the coolest, smartest, and all the potential in the world athletes and creatives. La La Land, in its own unapologetic, fever dream way, celebrates those that carry on, whether being famous is on the menu or not.
La La Land, with its heart-stirring solutions, and engaging journey, is the realist, live action escapist film you’ll ever have the pleasure of experiencing. The magic of the movies has returned.