Warning: This contains some spoilers of “La La Land” and is best read after seeing the film.
Disclosure: I really, really like musicals. I love their Technicolor splendour; I love their gorgeous artistry; I love their unabashed joy and their heightened sense of tragedy. I love the costumes, the dance numbers, the elaborate set designs and the smart, witty dialogue. I get a ridiculous kick out of watching Fred and Ginger hoofing all over Art Deco sets, and I swoon like nobody’s business over Cyd Charisse using her legs the way a painter uses a brush. And the music – Ah, the music!
I La- La- love it.
The collaboration of song, dance and narrative storytelling amounts to a near perfect form of entertainment. And, in terms of cinema, musicals allow for the communication of a character’s internal thoughts – a genius way of getting around one of cinema’s biggest constraints, allowing characters to express feelings that dialogue never can. The songs, too, have the difficult task of having to propel the story, define characters and establish motivations; as well as being catchy and altogether musically interesting. In other words, it’s not easy. But when done well, there are few things like it.
And so, with that in mind, I come to “La La Land”, the new glitzy, glamourous musical from writer-director – and all-round whiz kid – Damien Chazelle. And if I’d fallen any harder for this film I’d probably have gotten a concussion. “La La Land” feels like it was made especially for me – every beat, every note, every nod, every frame. Remember that scene in “Sherlock Jr.” where Buster Keaton walks up to the screen in a movie theatre and literally falls into the movie? That’s exactly what I wanted to do while watching “La La Land”. I so desperately wanted to jump into the picture and dance in the purple-orange twilight with its stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
What can I say? I’m gaga for “La La”. It’s a gorgeous love letter to Old Hollywood, written in beautiful longhand and signed off with a ruby-red lipstick-marked kiss. It’s an ode to those that dare to dream – as foolish as they may sometimes seem. It’s a song to the hearts that ache; a raised glass to the messes we make. To the dreamers, the risk-takers, the romantic fools and the starry-eyed artists – here’s to them all. But “La La Land” is also a truly remarkable example of pure cinema – a trait shared by all great on-screen musicals. Many of the great movie musicals strike a balance between simplicity and complexity. And “La La Land” is a very simple story made with impeccable craft and extreme technical sophistication; but never so much so that it feels like it’s favouring technique over story.
Mia (played brilliantly by Emma Stone) is a young aspiring actress hoping to get her big break in Hollywood. But, due to the cruel nature of Hollywood auditions, we start to wonder what will happen first: will Mia break into the movies, or will the movies break Mia? After a string of cute encounters in which the pair start off hating each other (a little nod to the old Astaire and Rogers movies of the ‘30s), Mia eventually falls in love with Sebastian (charmingly played by Ryan Gosling): a gifted, if slightly snobbish, jazz pianist who dreams of running his own club. These may seem like characters from dozens of other musicals (and in a sense they are), but that’s partly the point. “La La Land” plays with traditional musical tropes and audience expectations; in a sense deconstructing “the musical” whilst always paying homage to it.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have never been better than they are here. Their chemistry is undeniable. They feel like an Old Hollywood pairing. Sure, their dancing is not going to trouble the legacy of classic hoofers like Gene Kelly or Eleanor Powell, and their singing isn’t exactly Marni Nixon or Ethel Merman, but it’s not supposed to be. “La La Land” is trying for something different; something more authentic and “real” than pitch-perfect vocals and immaculately executed tap dancing. Their far-from-perfect skills highlight the pair’s adorable, bumbling humanity – ordinary people set against extraordinary backdrops.
This, I feel, is because the film is pitched somewhere between a classic MGM-style musical from the ‘50s and a more melancholic Jacques Demy musical from the ‘60s. This balancing act is also reflected by the film’s structure. The first half is very MGM. The second half is very Demy. Together they complement each other beautifully, wonderfully setting up the film’s finale – a stunning “An American in Paris”-style dream sequence that is, quite simply, one of the most rapturous pieces of modern American cinema I’ve seen in a long time.
The film owes an enormous debt Demy; particularly his masterpiece, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”: a sumptuous, vividly coloured French operetta – and a film that boasts the best wallpaper in cinema history. No really, it does. But there’s also a little bit of “The Young Girls of Rochefort” in there too. (If you haven’t seen these two Demy films, incidentally, I urge you to check them out – particularly if you enjoyed “La La Land”. They really are spectacular.)
What “La La Land” manages to do so well – and why it works so well as a piece of cinema – is that it makes the camera (and, by extension, the audience) another dancer in the movie. Mandy Moore’s choreography is deliberately designed with the camera in mind. It gives the film a sophisticated fluidity that many modern musical films lack. In other words, it’s a film made by people who love and understand musicals – primarily Chazelle, a man that clearly adores Old Hollywood; evident by his littering of the film’s background with nods and references to (and even iconic faces of) classic American cinema. But, as represented by the closing of the Rialto cinema, and all the talk surrounding the death of jazz in the film, Chazelle is also keenly aware that the worlds of Humphrey Bogart and John Coltrane are sadly fading away.
The film’s cinematography, by Swedish DP Linus Sandgren, is exquisite. Almost all films are shot in colour these days. But very few films actually use colour to help tell their story. The colour palette of “La La Land” is beautiful, and is begging to be appreciated on the big screen. It was shot on 35mm, giving it that rich scintillating quality that only good old-fashioned celluloid can provide. And, coupled with the film’s ample use of the “magic hour” to capture L.A.’s famous dusky glow, it makes for a genuinely magnificent visual experience.
Colour is also an important aspect of wardrobe, of course. And the costumes in “La La Land” are glorious. Emma Stone’s beautiful flapper girl-style dresses change in accordance with the seasons. The changing seasons provide the structure of the film, but they also cleverly reflect the changes in Mia and Sebastian’s relationship. In winter, when they first meet, it’s a cute, but cold, encounter (lots of car horns and middle fingers). In the spring, however, their relationship takes root and starts to grow. In the summer, it is in full blossom. But come autumn, it starts to fall apart.
The irony of a seasonal structure is not lost on Chazelle, given that the film is set in L.A. – where sunshine is as common as palm trees and Priuses. This is delightfully addressed in the film’s spectacular “Winter” opening number, entitled “Another Day of Sun”: a stunning, one-take dance routine wherein the camera swoops and swirls all over a Los Angeles freeway. The film pokes fun at L.A. by incorporating the one thing all of its residents associate with the city – traffic. It takes one of the most famously irritating aspects of L.A. and turns it into a mesmerising, intricately staged singsong. I would call it a showstopper were it not for the fact that the show’s just getting started.
However, all of my soppy gushing over “La La Land” is probably best ignored if you don’t like musicals. The film is most certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste. In fact, due to all the adulation it’s been receiving, the inevitable “back La- La- lash” is starting to gain traction. Some of the complaints labelled against “La La Land” are worth noting, however; particularly this well-argued piece by Morgan Leigh Davies for L.A. Review of Books. And although I agree with many of the criticisms brought up, I still cannot, and will not, deny the giddy internal flutter I felt the whole way through this film.
As they say in “Guys and Dolls”: “So sue me.”
There’s a scene in the film where Mia is discussing her one-woman play with Sebastian and she’s worried that people mightn’t take to it. “It feels really nostalgic to me.” “That’s the point” says Sebastian. “Are people going to like it?” Mia asks. Sebastian looks her in the eye, grins and says “Fuck ‘em!” And with that, Chazelle is effectively telling his audience the same thing. If they’re not on board with the film, if they think it’s too nostalgic, too indebted to the past, or too sentimental, then, well, fuck ‘em.
And to be honest, when it comes to musicals, I’m siding with Chazelle on this. I tend to have zero time for people that don’t like musicals. If you’re the kind of person that watches “Singin’ in the Rain” and doesn’t feel like “laughing at clouds” by the end of the picture, or doesn’t “walk down the lane in a happy refrain” whenever the lights come back up, then I have nothing more to say to you.
People who don’t like musicals? Ugh – If I may slightly tweak a quote from Lina Lamont, “I cayn’t stand ‘em.”
There’s a moment in “La La Land”, not far into the film, where Mia and Sebastian are strolling through a film studio backlot discussing acting and jazz. They stumble across a movie set, beautifully lit and gorgeously arranged. Mia smiles blissfully, turns, and walks out of the frame. As she does so she lets out a nostalgic sigh: “Ah, I love it.” That tiny, beautiful little moment is how I felt the whole way through “La La Land”. You know… The sort of feeling that makes you want to grab an umbrella, leap on a lamp post and belt out “What glorious feeling; I’m happy again.”