'La La Land'
Full disclosure: I generally don’t like musicals. They’re too artificial, too stylized, too overblown, too sweet, and mostly just too nice for me. When ‘La La Land’ was hyped up like nobody’s business, I got nervous. I didn’t want to hate this thing that everyone seemed to love. Then I saw it and… wow. Writer/director Damien Chazelle (that kid who made ‘Whiplash’) has delivered something of a miracle here.
‘La La Land’ is a love letter to the biggest, broadest and most artificial of movie musicals yet somehow manages to slowly feel a bit like actual life. It’s old-fashioned movie magic with all the sweetness and none of the cavities. What a beautiful, life-affirming movie.
The film kicks off with a song and dance routine set in a traffic jam on the L.A. freeway that can only be described as astounding. Chazelle shot on 35mm film, so that glow and the glorious colors are infectious. The sequence unfolds in one impossible long shot, with the camera doing just as much impossibly perfect dancing as the performers. The stage is set and the magic begins. The story starts off in a very deliberately old-fashioned manner, with a plot that could be stolen from some forgotten 1930s studio musical. Emma Stone plays a coffee shop worker with dreams of Hollywood stardom. Ryan Gosling plays a musician for hire whose dream is to play jazz in a club of his own design that would keep it traditional. You could call them old souls, but the story and cinematic language are just as old, so perhaps it’s just the movie.
They meet, they dance, they sing, they fall in love – all the old standbys. It’s funny, it’s cute, it’s magical, it’s heightened. They dance in the observatory from ‘Rebel without a Cause’. The musical numbers are grandiose. The emotions are outsized. The color palate is blinding. It’s big and beautiful and a reminder of the old Hollywood magic that has long since passed. Chazelle directs like a showman. No scene is too big, no shot too complicated. But he writes with his tongue in his cheek. The movie knows it’s corny, so it plays that off as self-aware comedy yet is actually sneakily the real thing. It’s ballsy and beautiful and sweet and innocent despite the irony. Then the lovers find themselves in a relationship and shit gets real.
For the first half of ‘La La Land’, Stone, Gosling and their fellow castmates are mostly acting in quotation marks. They feel it and sell it, but it’s at least one step removed from reality and sometimes more. Then, eventually, the daze of the love and the day-glo musical settles. The lovers become a couple. She puts on a passionate one-woman show that’ll finally reveal her talents to stuffy Hollywood folk. He takes a gig in a band that’ll pay the bills while going against his rigid artistic principals. These are the things they’re supposed to do, but the candy-colored fantasy fades and awkward reality sets in. Suddenly, Chazelle’s restless cameras are more still. Stone and Gosling’s performances settle down to reality. There’s still music, but it’s now all diegetic. No one bursts into song unless it’s a literal performance. Love crusts. Things get harsh. The lavish production remains, but ugly reality sneaks in. There’s still much more to go, but things have changed. It’s still magical, just in a different way.
That’s the trick with ‘La La Land’. It’s one of those “Have your cake and eat it too” artistic endeavors that somehow works. As much as Chazelle wants to revive and homage a more innocent brand of moviemaking, he also wants to bring it kicking and screaming into the current day. At first, that’s achieved through ironic distance and gentle camp. Then he finds a way to make the fantasy real without letting go. The movie remains a glowing crowd-pleaser of giddy excitement, just one stung by the pains of reality. It’s a fable with honesty and the whole production team follows suit. The film is always stylish, but not always artificial. Gosling and Stone’s remarkable performances are heightened with their feet on the ground. The dance of writing, performance and filmmaking runs deeper than mere musical numbers. The film is somehow grand old entertainment and a comment on the limitations of grand old entertainment for modern audiences.
‘La La Land’ is positioned to be the big, broad, crowd-pleasing favorite of this year’s movie awards season. It is bold and designed to plaster grins on the faces of anyone who lets the movie into their eyeholes. Yet there will be cynics who dismiss the film based on the marketing or the fact that the movie has the audacity to be pleasing and old-fashioned. Don’t listen to the poo-pooers. There’s more going on here than meets the eye, even if the surface is so damn pretty. Damien Chazelle is no mere bubbling romantic. He’s still the guy who delivered the harshness of ‘Whiplash’, and even in his romantic musical effort retains a bit of that stank. In fact, the movie is secretly kind of a downer. It’s just presented in such a viscerally pleasing and romantic way that viewers will leave on too much of a high to ponder the intended bitter aftertaste. This is a special movie, one to be cherished, even by the bitter musical haters like this curmudgeonly critic.