La La Land (2016)
Dir: Damien Chazelle
Damien Chazelle has brought together his two loves, cinema and music, highlighting diminishing genres of each, musicals and jazz, casting them in the flattering light of nostalgia and romanticism that shows what he loves so much about them and deftly offers a compelling case for their preservation.
An aspiring actress (Emma Stone) and a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) meet and fall in love in Los Angeles as they pursue their dreams and sing a few songs along the way.
Every few years an Oscar front-runner comes along that is hailed as doing more than blowing just its own trumpet but is considered the return of a genre, now much-forgotten, seemingly finding new appeal and relevance. This year musicals are that genre and ‘La La Land’ is leading the charge.
This is not the only musical of the year, I’d argue that alongside films such as ‘Sing Street’ (which is clearly a musical of sorts) and the strong return of Disney’s animated musicals in the form of ‘Moana’, ‘La La Land’ is just representing one sub-genre, the most nostalgic, that of the ‘classic’ musical in the likes of MGM favourites such as ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ or even more closely compared to ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’. Though one of the lead characters is a jazz pianist, the songs aren’t completely jazz though they do have elements of the style in them. It’s a beautiful score and soundtrack by Justin Hurwitz (as well as other lyricists), with Stone and Gosling performing their own parts, ranging from slow and reflective themes such as Oscar-nominated ‘Audition (Fools who Dream)’ and ‘City of Stars’ to the big upbeat ensemble tracks.
Even before the opening scene, there are nods to the film being presented in ‘CinemaScope’, emulating that shooting style, hinting from that first title at what’s to come. The film then opens on a jammed highway, moving through a mix of cars of different ages, launching into an upbeat musical number right from the beginning so you can be in no doubt, a musical is what you’re going to get. I thought this was a smart move, in case anyone was unaware, the film clarifies where it’s coming from instantly. The opening song and dance number sets up the characters, their surroundings, and through the lyrics it establishes all the themes and a tone that I loved, right down to the point that it’s winter but in L.A. it’s “another day of sun” showing this is a strange place where things work in their own way.
I loved the use of colour, especially in the vibrant costumes and the tones highlighted in the scenery thanks to the beautiful cinematography. As true CinemaScope technology isn’t available anymore, the closest possible options were used to achieve a similar feel, shooting on film with Panavision equipment. Many scenes were shot in one take, so there’s a nice flow to the film that feels very natural and surprisingly relaxed, with lively camerawork that helps to sweep the viewer up in the momentum. There’s brilliant use of pacing, fast scenes that mimic the heady rush of romance and success, then slower more static scenes when things aren’t going so well or the more melancholy mood needs highlighting.
Story-wise it’s familiar ground especially for musicals, the life of an actress and a musician works and makes sense with all the singing and dancing. Also the way they start with a playful dislike that rapidly develops into whirwind romance, it’s nothing new but makes the start of their relationship interesting though that type of dynamic will only work when the leads have chemistry. Although they weren’t first choice of casting, it’s difficult now to imagine other actors in the lead roles, Stone and Gosling do have chemistry, it worked in ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’ and works even better here. She exudes charisma and joy, he is a little more toned down and broody, together they are fascinating to watch and didn’t cross the line into annoying as some artistic’ characters can often come across.
Recurring through the film is the theme of pursuing dreams, with the leads having artistic aspirations they are working for before they meet, urging each other to pursue them but showing there may be a cost. As is often the case the pursuing their dreams makes it hard for them to be together, even though they both encourage each other to do so while the film romanticises and praises ‘dreamers’. In the end, the film balances its message in a way that’s a mix of all the emotions shown, a surprising coda that leaves the film on a beautiful haunting note.
Full-blown retro musicals like this aren’t going to come back in force. Simply, they can’t, nobody (else) makes them like this anymore. Damien Chazelle has pulled off a feat of incredible proportions, bringing together ell the familiar elements but freshening them in a way that doesn’t sweep off the nostalgia but polishes it and makes it look as good as new. Some thought ‘The Artist’ would open the floodgates for a slew of monochromatic silent movies, it didn’t, certainly none of any note, only in animation have those techniques and choices continued strongly. Musicals have never gone away, nor have they ever completely fallen out of favour, this just stands out above the rest in such a way and with hat-tipping galore as to feel like something beyond what we’ve seen of the genre in recent years. If films like these make a resurgence I’ll first be astounded, then thrilled, as something this enjoyable and astounding will never be unwelcome or go out of style.
‘La La Land’ has been nominated for a record-equalling 14 Academy Awards, including ‘Best Film’, ‘Director’, ‘Original Screenplay’ and many more. I have a feeling it’ll win big, partly because the enjoyable nature of the film endears it to people a little more than the weighty and melancholy alternatives, meaning it’s likely to be remembered fondly. I predict 8-10 wins on the night.