Spoiler alert: Don’t read ‘til you’ve seen La La Land, darling of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) and just about everybody on your FB feed. But if you’re anything like me who left the cinema humming and partially numb from an unexpected encounter with the divine, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.
At first glance, La La Land is a movie musical about an aspiring actress and a jazz musician who meet and fall in love. Starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the film has the makings of a great Hollywood rom-com. But the kicker is Damien Chazelle whose thoughtful, specific and nuanced direction recasts a somewhat recalcitrant trope in contemporary cinema into a deeply affecting work of art.
I won’t pretend to be a movie critic. But I do know musical theater. And this film is every bit a musical theater geek’s love letter to a genre that has set the Hollywood gold standard in the past century. Watching the film, you can’t help but cite comparisons to Singin’ in the Rain, On The Town, West Side Story, and the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals you grew up with. The scenes are laced with it, colored and edited to evoke Old Hollywood nostalgia.
If La La Land were a song, it would be Classic by MKTO. “I wanna thrill you like Michael, I wanna kiss you like Prince” is referential but self-aware, much like the film, but is respectful of giants on whose shoulders it stands. There’s also a cameo that calls you out on any perceived similarities in the jazz department (I didn’t realize Chazelle also directed Whiplash). But the music whose lyrics were crafted by Broadway duo Pasek and Paul is nostalgic but very much modern.
Musical wonderland: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone get their Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds on in La La Land.
Sebastian evokes the jittery, atonal complexities of jazz as he is faced with having to play purist to a supposedly “dying” art. His jazz becomes the underbelly and through line of John Legend’s capitulated bluster. Mia on the other hand feeds herself into the machine of failed auditions and deflated Hollywood dreams. It’s about navigating life’s humble beginnings, both excruciating and exciting at the same time.
What really propels the film however is the creative tension between old and new, idealism and pragmatism, reel magic and real life. Both Mia and Sebastian are struggling artists trying to get by. Not necessarily an original premise. But its stylistics and affectations allow you to sit right there with them as they navigate the freeze captures of LA (thankfully with a hop, step, and song in their hearts). That is then the penultimate third character in the film: Los Angeles, the so-called “City of Stars.”
The film sharpens directorial conceit with clinical precision. A thoughtful juxtaposition of what could have been and what is, dipping its toes in both without alienating the other. It does so in key moments where a tune or a visual triggers a fantasy or a fallen memory, launching into a Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly-esque Gotta Dance montage and a staccato musical repertoire. You are transported, then deflated almost immediately, either by a cellphone ring or a reminder that you are definitely not in Kansas anymore but the 21st century. I mean, talk about an ending.
A good pairing: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s on-screen chemistry leaps out and touches you.
I suppose it’s also the reason why my heart broke, rendered more painful because I had literally just mended it, watching the first two-thirds of the film. For dreamers like myself, it is the harsh reality of having to accept that “happily ever after” could mean something other than how you originally intended it; that something or someone could exist, not for a lifetime, but for a reason that bleeds into various seasons. Winter. Spring. Summer. Fall. And back to winter… five years later.
La La Land is everything we know about musical theater and somehow everything we don’t. It is that existential Pandora’s Box that transports you inside your head, into areas you’ve never even seen before. I sat through the movie with tears in my eyes and butterflies in my throat — tears not from sadness but empathy, and the profundity and acceptance of where it is and where it wants to go.
It is a delightful pastiche of post-modern pedigree. It scavenges, curates, and celebrates what works and what doesn’t — kind of how Singin’ in the Rain was, in its ‘50s inception. The latter wanted to have all the elements of a feel-good film so people could forget about the war. La La Land is a leap of faith that is actually truth serum coated in cotton candy.
I remember dragging my 80-year-old dad to catch An American in Paris on Broadway. I was afraid he’d fall asleep. But surprisingly, he didn’t. I could see from his grin that he really liked it. Afterwards, he bought a program and thanked me. “Toffs, wow. (Choked up) I can’t believe God could create something that beautiful.” An old man in awe, as though he were a child again. I’m not religious. But it brought tears to my eyes. That was probably how I felt after catching La La Land. A kid, but instantly, an adult. It didn’t feel good. But it felt right. Isn’t that the story of our modern-day lives?