Ay, the movie musical, that precious, delicate, most cinematic of genres. They nearly always feel like they’re on the verge of extinction, don’t they? Sure, the musical has been a staple for most of cinema’s existence, but somewhere in the cultural zeitgeist it became square, dusty and cornball. The movie musical has dusted off in certain corners with revivals in the forms of Disney animated features, the occasional Broadway transfer or bold auteurial experiment, but more often than not methods of trickery or strokes of irony seem required for modern audiences to engage with the form. Funny business is necessary because spontaneous thrusts into song and dance is so old-hat and cheesy; who needs such froth? So lies the challenge for Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a lovely and exuberant contemporary tuner that unabashedly, and without a trace of irony, wears its heart and song on its sleeve.
Chazelle’s cheery and infectious throwback makes no bones about it either from tongue-in-check “Filmed in Cinemascope” title card to final fade out. While the influences run fast and loose in this candy colored homage to MGM musicals, Mickey and Judy “let’s put on a show” reveries and Jacques Demy-infused melancholia, Chazelle’s charming tale of a chance romance between two aspiring artists in the City of Angels looks, feels and sounds like a breath of the fresh air, not in spite of but because of its utter sincerity. The look, mood and scope is enhanced mightily by sunny cinematography, clever editing and colorful production and costume design as well as a bewitching original score – music by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – but all ambitions and high-degree of difficulty flights of fancy would have been for nil had La La Land not found the right set of singing and dancing partners. Luckily, with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, separately and in tandem, delivering career-enshrining and mythologizing performances, La La Land reaches the stars, at one point literary.
Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz musician who fancies one day opening up his own club. He’s also a bit of a pain in the ass, a musical purist so helplessly and devoutly traditional that he blows part-time work as a restaurant pianist; nobody wants to listen to generic filler, right? In the same town also resides Mia (Stone), an aspiring actress who between auditions works as a barista on a studio lot. She’s a bit disillusioned herself, having to trek back and forth on acting jobs that lead nowhere. Gosling and Stone – who previously rehearsed as foils in Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad – though, have the kind of chemistry the screen was made for and is so rarely utilized. Her earthy charisma complements his gritty swoon which is important since the movie rests on their connection. And so, as La La Land traverses the seasons of Los Angeles (the joke being that the weather doesn’t change very much) where Sebastian and Mia meet, bicker, become smitten with one another while riding the bumpy course of forging careers (or attempting to anyhow) in the arts, this wistfully diverting confection is grounded and deepened by our modern day Fred and Ginger.
The lure and improbable feat of La La Land is while it traffics in the sunny glow of Hollywood magic, beneath the surface lies a hardened and genuine reality to the rejection, humiliation and pain of young artistic ambition. The sheen and polish is intoxicating and put in motion right from the beginning with the joyous opening number “Another Day of Sun” set on a bumper-to-bumper Los Angeles freeway. Yet, while Gosling and Stone are improbably coiffed and tailored (wearing fun garments from costume designer Mary Zophres) and radiating the kind of movie star energy that modern Hollywood seems to have completely abandoned, Chazelle (who also penned the screenplay) nimbly inserts and modulates the mood to reflect the melancholy and ennui that face dreamers like Sebastian and Mia. It’s a field Chazelle clearly has an eye for as he embroidered similar themes in his breakthrough feature Whiplash two years ago; as it was with his first feature, the micro-budgeted musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a sort of dress rehearsal for La La Land.
The realities of budding artistic expression is resonant throughout even if it intermittently, if never consequently, stalls some of La La Land‘s joyful and flavorful momentum. For instance, in a last stand gesture, Sebastian joins a band – headed by John Legend (somewhat bizarrely, the film’s only trace of race considering the legacy of jazz) – that casts a foreboding future for our love birds; on the other end, Mia stages a one-woman show that falls on deaf ears. As the mood shifts, so does Chazelle’s framing; one sequence vividly recalls the green glow otherworldly effect of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, yet it never feels cynical; ingenious director of photography Linus Sandgren (Joy) deserves a special call out in particular for his inventive, swirly work.
What makes the film so special is even in Sebastian and Mia’s downward times or in Chazelle’s pointed rejection of the silliness and congestion of residing in Los Angeles, the joyous “let’s put on a show” can-do spirit that makes La La Land such a charmer in the first place permeates. That charm is pretty irresistible, if you’re willing to meet the movie halfway. The centerpiece song, a quiet and dreamy ode entitled “City of Stars” is transporting in its poignancy as is Stone’s climatic show-topper “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” and but two sparkling examples. As is when our lovers literally take flight while swooning in the feels of budding love during a late-night trespassing trip to the Griffith Observatory and a grand finale that’s as moving and sublime as anything in the last year (or more) of cinema. Movie musicals did somewhere down the road lose their cool, but La La Land may be the thoughtful and invigorating revival to bring them back. If not, then at the very least provide the genre a graceful and endearing coda. Fred and Ginger would be proud.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Damien Chazelle’s joyful and exuberant modern musical is a full-blown charmer. Energetic and lifted on a spirit of pure glee (and refreshing little of meta-smarmy jukebox mania of Glee), La La Land beautifully lifts the era of old MGM-style musicals and transports those willing to a kind of cinema euphoria. Exceptionally well crafted and beautifully anchored by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, La La Land is a treasure.