For the Fools Who Dream… A Much-Needed Musical
DIRECTED BY DAMIEN CHAZELLE/2016
For a high-end lavish movie musical, there’s something scrappy and imperfect about La La Land. When we hear that the entire ambitious undertaking was a shoot of forty-eight locations in forty-two days, we begin to understand why.
Directed and put forth by Damien Chazelle, the young filmmaking up and comer who gave us the exceptional Whiplash a few years ago, La La Land is easily read as his next evolutionary step into autuerhood. The conventional musical form suits him well, as La La Land is something to sing about.
So many of Chazelle’s tropes are present from before: An intense love for jazz, and an uncanny ability to shoot it live; the melancholy drudgery of the struggle for one’s talent to be acknowledged, and to be great; and of course a passion for music and performance that is woven into its very fabric. Whereas Whiplash was Chazelle yanking us onto the dance floor, La La Land is more of a big sloppy kiss. Passionate all the same, yet undeniably different.
From the dazzling opening number “Another Day of Sun” to the thematic earworm “City of Stars”, and beyond, La La Land is well stocked with terrific tunes.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling take the leads, teasingly taking their time to reignite their established chemistry of Crazy Stupid Love, Gangster Squad and what seems like surely a half dozen other movie pairings of theirs that it turns out don’t exist... yet. Stone and Gosling (Yes, she manages to outshine him by an arms length) eventually radiate rhythm, giving 100% of what they’ve got to give to this unlikeliest of 2016 film events. Although they’re markedly not the best singers in town, seeing them together again trumps hearing them – something which might not qualify as a true shortcoming at all. They may not step out like Fred and Ginger, but they’re a cozily emerging ala Jesse and Kristen. Soon enough, maybe we’ll even know who the latter first-name pairing is without having to think about it.
Stone plays Mia, a discouraged struggling actress sharing an apartment with several other such young ladies. Together, they wear brightly colored dresses and drag one another to L.A. parties. Gosling is Sebastian, a musician of few words, apparently despondent over the fading status of jazz in today’s world. His plan is to one day open a fully functioning jazz club called “Chicken on a Stick”. Through him, she will have her eyes opened to the wonders of freeform performance. Through her, he will open up to the value Hollywood’s heritage. Together, they will fall in love and dance their way to their dreams.
…Would that it were so simple. (To quote another silver screen nostalgia trip from earlier this year.)
From the dazzling opening number “Another Day of Sun” to the thematic earworm “City of Stars”, and beyond, La La Land is well stocked with terrific tunes. Even if the movie itself doesn’t always dance along as one might wish, the soundtrack, all original songs and music, is one to keep. If a reservation is to be expressed, it’s that there’s no topping “Another Day of Sun” in terms of bravura presentation. But bravura isn’t everything.
A close second to the movie’s marriage to music is its love affair with Old Hollywood. The iconography is everywhere in a way that seems overwrought for reality, even for the eternally navel-gazing Los Angeles. The “Mount Rushmore” figureheads are of course glimpsed – Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, etc. – albeit painted as a haphazard mural on the side of a building. But then there’s a more specific secondary layer, that of the work itself. Hats off to Chazelle for taking the time to actually spend time with Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause, to emotionally engage the source of the icon’s status – if only fleetingly. But who needs the Hollywood sign when we’ve got Griffith Observatory? (City of Stars, indeed!) The dance scene that plays out there instantly ranks among the greatest sequences of that location. Following Rebel, of course.
La La Land is reference laden without being pastiche. Being a full blown musical very much in the vein of the MGM Arthur Freed unit’s spectacles of yore. Far from the first time that aesthetic has been paid homage in something more modern, this is a case of the influence coming full circle after passing through France in the 1960s. This review is far from the first instance to point out the absolutely essential influence of French musical genius Jacque Demy, particularly his colorful and moody Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), itself a shoutout to stateside forebears such as An American in Paris, itself scoring a lesser reference. From the palate to the story, La La Land couldn’t exist without Umbrellas. Yet, it dances out of it’s shadow and finds its own way. Empty Hollywood backlots have never been more endearing. (“There’s the Paris window from Casablanca!”)
The dots of the musical notes connect, even as La La Land refuses to be a frothy or purely feel-good affair. In a difficult year, the movies have taken a reflective turn toward themes of loss. La La Land gives us something to dance about, even as itself refuses to sugarcoat certain realities. “Scrappy and imperfect” fits it well, not unlike the wonderful and terrible town on which it’s based, which it’s affectionately and ribbingly named for.
Here’s to the fools who dream – and the cost of their dreams.