Old School Charm for the Modern Era
Much has been made of the ambition and excitement surrounding director/writer Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, an unabashed musical done in the style of classic Hollywood entries into the genre. From the film industry buffs who adore its old school charms to the less-than-enthusiastic audiences who have already become worn out by the constant praise and awards being heaped upon the film, it seems like everyone has extreme reactions to Chazelle’s film. And with the film making waves by being tied for the record number of Academy Award nominations with a total of 14, it’s difficult to not hold the highly lauded movie musical up to a massive amount of scrutiny.
But what Chazelle, director behind 2014’s stellar Whiplash, is seeking to do with La La Land is to create a movie-going experience that captures the magic of old Hollywood filmmaking while also paying tribute to its many irreplaceable films. In doing so, Chazelle has made a movie that must be compared to many towering giants of film history while also introducing the idea of a musical to audiences who may not be all that familiar with the genre.
It’s a tough spot to be in, but Chazelle and his fantastic lead actors pull it off with ample grace and wit. Though there may be some rough spots in the process and La La Land is far from groundbreaking, this modern musical has grace, energy, and wit to spare, which more than make up for its few shortcomings.
Set in Hollywood and following the intertwining paths of Mia, an aspiring actress played by Emma Stone, and Sebastian, a jazz pianist played by Ryan Gosling, La La Land is the story of chasing the Hollywood. And as Mia and Sebastian fall for each other and experience the highs and lows of pursuing dreams with no guarantee of a happy ending, their story is brought to life in all manner of songs and dance sequences that are styled in the manner of classics like Singin’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Both those charming dance numbers and the numerous conversations concerning dreams and ambitions are marvelously shot by Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren. Vibrant purples and pinks pervade the film’s nighttime sequences, while stunning blues and greens pop off the screen in the daytime. The camera itself moves with the grace of a professional dancer, swooping in and out of its dances and songs, often in single, unbroken takes that highlight the actors as much as they highlight the cinematography itself. It may be distracting at times, but the decision adds to the technically proficient and meticulously detailed nature of the film. Through it all, Chazelle attempts to show both the unblemished Hollywood dream and the less than glamorous struggle to make it big in the entertainment world. This is an L.A. that is gorgeous at every moment and where the worst thing that could happen to a person is being stuck serving coffee.
Yes, the struggle is real in La La Land, it’s just that the struggle has relatively low stakes.
Then again, this is a musical done in the style of old school Hollywood. Love and success are what’s at stake, not much more. To be fair, La La Land’s been-there-done-that story of love and dreams in Hollywood is very well done, capturing the relatable highs and lows of trying to find your passion in life. It’s just that the story, and its two central characters, having seemingly starred in dozens of films spanning the last seven decades. Perhaps the tried and true method was best when deciding to film a big budget Hollywood musical in a time when such films are few and far between. But La La Land is to be appreciated most for the style and grace in which it executes its story, not necessarily the innovations it brings to the musical genre.
From the very beginning, La La Land is constantly trying to find a balance between its flashy musical numbers and its more intimate, indie film-style focus on characters. And while its opening numbers opt for going as big and bold as possible, with countless dancing extras filling the frame at every moment, most of the dances in La La Land keep a small, quiet focus on its two leads. That’s truly for the best, as La La Land is at its most charming and fun when it’s about the core romance and dreams of Stone and Gosling’s characters and weakest when it buys into its clichéd ideas concerning the Hollywood dream.
While much has been made of its opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” set on a traffic-packed Los Angeles freeway overpass, it’s easily the worst scene in the film. It’s all plastic smiles, heavy-handed showmanship, and incredibly bad lighting. It’s enough to cause some serious worries about the rest of the film, but, thankfully, the majority of Chazelle’s story is much more intimate than its in-your-face opening minutes.
In the style of classic musicals, La La Land breaks out into song and dance at moments of emotional crescendo, whether that be love, sadness, or catharsis. Those transitions aren’t always perfect (it’s tough to go from grounded, personal moments of connection to big and brash musical sequences, no matter how good the team behind the film), but when they work, it’s quite magical.
While Gosling and Stone aren’t professional dancers or singers, they certainly give it their all in their many showstopping numbers found throughout the film. Although their technical proficiency isn’t up to the same level as musical legends like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they bring plenty of charisma and their chemistry with one another elevates the two sides of La La Land. When it comes to the non-musical moments, which outnumber the musical numbers, we are able to get to better know and care for these two flawed yet lovable dream chasers. Stone and Gosling bounce off each other very well, and while the film’s platonic approach to love doesn’t allow for many big sparks of passion, they manage to craft a convincing and realistic relationship amidst those bigger musical moments.
But it’s the musical moments that are the touchstone of La La Land, which come to define the emotional highs and lows of the film. In particular, Stone and Gosling’s tap dancing number set against a dusk L.A. skyline to the tune of “A Lovely Night,” a fantastical dance sequence amongst the stars at the Griffith Observatory, and the An American in Paris-influenced final number stand out the most amongst numerous other musical sequences. And the refrains of “City of Stars” and the Stone-spotlighting “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” will be stuck in your head for weeks to come. Most likely in a good way, so long as La La Land charms you in its idiosyncratic way.
And that’s really how the successes and failures of La La Land can be described as a whole. Chazelle’s film works as both love letter and revival of the prototypical Hollywood musical, with only a few concessions made to give it a modern flair and pacing. If you buy into the style and focus of La La Land, you’ll most likely be won over by it. But musicals simply aren’t for everyone, and those impervious to its allures may remain unconvinced by the love felt for it by many others.