La La Land is the first great musical of the 21st century – an instant classic.
La La Land is the most unexpected and welcome of anomalies – a unashamedly romantic musical drawing on the tradition of the song-and dance-classics of the mid-20th century (eg: Singin’ in the Rain), but re-imagined in contemporary mode. High-risk stuff artistically and commercially, then, but the film works joyously, magically, heartbreakingly well! In fact, through an imaginative quantum leap and the benefit of modern production values, gifted writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) has pulled one out of the hat here to deliver an instant classic.
That’s some feat. Indeed, it’s something of an investment miracle that La La Land actually made it to the screen, especially considering the songs that feature are previously unheard (they were written by Justin Hurwitz, who was at Harvard with Chazelle – the two also collaborated in Whiplash).
Wisely, Chazelle establishes the film as a musical from the get-go. In the upbeat opening sequence, drivers and passengers caught in an LA traffic jam exit their cars to stage a vibrant song and dance routine. However, this is not one of those musicals where the characters burst into spontaneous song. The narrative subsequently progresses in standard manner – ie: via naturalistic dialogue – focusing on the two lead characters, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan), whose on-screen chemistry fairly sizzles.
In the usual tradition of romances, they don’t get off to a good start, but keep bumping into each other and find they have much in common. Both harbour artistic dreams, jazz purist Sebastian to quit his tedious piano bar gigs playing popular tunes to inattentive audiences and open his own jazz club, Mia to quit her uninspiring work in a café and act professionally. Of course, they fall in love, triggering a departure from realism to a dreamy and irresistibly romantic song and dance number in an elevated setting overlooking the city of LA, with the starry night sky overhead. And so the magic begins.
This is gorgeous stuff, augmented with saturated colour lighting and arrestingly beautiful cinematography. Can Stone and Gosling dance? You bet. They’re not Fred and Ginger, but no one ever will be. It doesn’t matter. They look great together.
As for the singing, Gosling’s smooth whispering tenor is perfect for the instantly catchy ode to LA, City of Stars, which repeats like a refrain throughout the film. But while both he and Stone are highly competent, neither are polished professionals with the sort of projection and control that comes of big talent disciplined through long years of practice and expert tuition – and again it doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s for the best.
It’s all about the feeling, and Stone, in particular, is brimming with it. There is an intuitively expressive quality to her vocals that has been ironed out of many pros. Indeed, in the brilliant concluding stages of the film, in a sequence that I think is destined to rank among the greatest in any musical, she steals the show. Mia auditions for an acting role. Inspired by memories of her grandmother, who lived her dreams as she has sought to do, Mia finds most appropriate expression in song. Opening herself up in a quite extraordinary way, and perfectly complemented by the accompanying visuals, Stone leaves nothing on the table in a startlingly heart-felt and emotionally true rendition of the stirring The Fools Who Dream. Have the tissues handy. This is profoundly moving stuff.
From here, the film moves to a heartbreaker of a finale that is pure genius. I won’t go into narrative detail, lest it detract from the impact for those who follow up and see the film. Suffice to say, the effect is something like musically and visually induced tripping, as a narrative parallel life twist that would have been impossible in the classic musicals of yesteryear ties the piece together thematically, via a swooningly romantic excursion into what might have been that ends with a bitter-sweet aftertaste of reality. If you have any tissues left after Stone’s The Fools Who Dream, you won’t when the credits roll! Naturally, I speak of others, not my stoical self.
The film is not without shortcomings. For example, much of the music is not terribly memorable (but the same might be said of Singin’ in the Rain, and quite a few other canonised musicals). And an OTT song and dance interlude in which dancing Sebastian and Mia defy gravity and float off into the air comes close to triggering the gag reflex – a case of pushing the “magic” too far via gratuitous SFX. But these are relatively trivial complaints…
I have to acknowledge that I’m big on musicals going right back. If you are too, La La Land is going to do it for you, and how. I promise. If musicals are not your thing, firstly what’s wrong with you, and secondly it’s never too late for a conversion. See La La Land and see the light. Oh, and Emma Stone in the performance of her life. She’s always been terrif, but this is one for the ages.
For complete list of film reviews published on this site see Movie Review Archives