Throughout most of the year, we’re always looking for what’s new, anything that’s on the cutting edge. Originality is something we’re constantly seeking and striving towards, but during the holiday season, we’re always brought back into the warmth of familiarity. We listen to the same songs, eat the same food and indulge in the same decorations we might have grown up with as children. How appropriate it is then that Damien Chazelle’s classic musical revival La La Land was moved from its July release date into December?
Chazelle’s film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August and has only continued to gain traction after subsequent exhibitions in Telluride and Toronto. The characters in the film often mention that jazz music is a dying breed, and similarly so is the Hollywood musical. Perhaps it’s even fitting that a film implicitly and explicitly addressing the states of two supposedly out-of-date art forms be located in a city whose name translates to “The City of Angels.” There’s a lot to soak in with La La Land, and its sumptuous beauty, while not being overly sweet makes for easy consumption.
For those who know their film history, and assuming their knowledge of La La Land was minimal, the opening ‘Presented in CinemaScope’ card that appears on the screen telegraphs exactly what they’re in for. As the film pays homage to the big budget studio musicals of the ’50s and ’60s, particularly the works from the incomparable Gene Kelly, the narrative, its tone and its intent goes through movements from act to act – again, appropriate for a film whose central focus is music.
The film opens with a usual site for Los Angeles commuters – a traffic jam on the highway – and here we have our first musical number, which serves as a microcosm for the film as a whole. Justin Hurwitz’s jazz band score is grand, the spectacle is bright and shining and the choreography is elaborate, evoking the numbers of yesteryear with a few modern twists slotted in for easy accessibility. And throughout the numbers in the first act, Linus Sandgren’s cinematography remains as fluid as the performers. It’s vintage, and sometimes annoyingly so while casually name-dropping legendary titles of the Old Hollywood era, but most importantly charming. And unlike the musicals of the late ‘60s, it has zero chance of nearly bankrupting the studio.
But right away, the film establishes a more classic approach with all of the trimmings and tassels in place where they should from the numbers to the introduction of our two protagonists. These protagonists, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), are whom we’ve come to expect and their motivations are recognizable thanks to genre conventions and the common folklore of dreaming big in L.A. Two aspiring artists living in the center of showbiz, struggling to make their mark and see their fantasies fully realized. They meet by chance and though they start off on the wrong foot, a few wacky happenstance run-ins lead to something more romantic. In fact, it brings to mind the relationship of Kelly and Debbie Reynolds’ characters in Singin’ in the Rain.
At this point, Gosling and Stone have co-starred together in their third film, and the dynamic chemistry they display must have been a godsend for Chazelle and Co., especially considering how complex the singing and dance routines are. One notable standout scene includes their stunningly perfect tap dance synchronization near the end of the first act. For as colorful as the scenes are – seriously, much of the color palette in the costuming, set decoration and lighting feels as though a rainbow bled all over the mise-en-scène and camera lens – the two stand out and continue to feed into the warmth of expectation on which the narrative is transfixed.
But despite the solid start, the film experiences a few too many rough patches throughout the second act, characterized by a transition from more traditional musical moviemaking to something a little more contemporary, and the plot suffers a little because of it. Switching gradually between these differing identities, the narrative hits a few pacing lulls, which is the last thing a film, much less a musical film, with a two plus hour runtime needs.
The advancement of the plot becomes less defined by the standard formula of a bombastic number followed by a transitional scene to the next number, and instead focuses on using music more organically as a means of character development rather than strictly for entertainment purposes. It’s admirable, certainly, but as lovable as Gosling and Stone are together, the film can’t afford to coast on its star power for too long, else the audience lose interest in a film whose shakeup might not be jarring enough to keep them curious.
If anything keeps eyes glued to the screen, however, it is the plot’s evolution from a heartwarming fairytale romance that helped signify Old Hollywood to a modern era approach; soulful, mature and heartbreakingly honest. By this time, we’ve reached the third act, whose intent is the reverse of the first. With that alteration finally complete, La La Land really hits its stride. Here, Stone and Gosling can steal the screen without the burden of genre confines – not that they were affected by it earlier on – and help the film reach an emotional core that will resonate universally. Though it may take longer than hoped to develop and reach the apex, the payoff signified by a final sequence even the great Kelly would be envious of is far too great to ignore.
La La Land is not just an effective payment of reverence or a touching love story, but also a journey not unlike that of trying to rise to entertainment stardom, or even life, in general. The mind conceives great things, and though the struggles may seem off-putting enough, we keep pushing through and hoping for an ending that is rewarding. It’s painful, but it’s breathtakingly beautiful. That’s how La La Land ends, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to feel affected by it.