It’s a thrilling combination of musical theater, energetic filmmaking, pageantry, and just about every other thing you need to make a movie downright “fabulous.”
Of course, the title is a pun. Taking place in the large, dense city of Los Angeles, La La Land is the story of two dreamers—an actress and a jazz musician—who struggle to make it in the so-called “city of stars”—all told through song. Like Singin’ in the Rain, it’s a show-business story, revealing the constant rejection and uncertainty that many starving artists face. In a chance meeting, aspiring performer and playwright Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and stubborn jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) fall in love and head toward the spotlight hand in hand. The hardships, obligations, and difficult compromises that come with expedient success challenge their bond, as well as the possibility that aspirations don’t always allow for the good we already have becomes apparent.
As a movie musical, it’s a wild success. Very old fashioned, it revives the type of filmmaking and musical cinema that gave us classics like West Side Story. Writer-director Damien Chazelle (coming back from his success with 2014’s Whiplash) creates a great premise for a musical, the romance between Mia and Sebastian being adventurous, sweet but not saccharine, and punctuated with compelling trials, tests of loyalty, and tough realities. He also has quite a knack for directing such material. In other musical films, sometimes the musical numbers can become stagnant because of restricted and unimaginative blocking. Here, the camera work, actor movements, and choreography by Mandy Moore all blend together seamlessly to give us a thrilling combination of musical theater, energetic filmmaking, pageantry, and just about every other thing you need to make a movie downright “fabulous.”
Staring off with a showstopper in the middle of a traffic jam, La La Land pulls out all of the sweeping long takes, impeccable coordination, and perfectly timed feats of dancing and complicated steps that will bring the story to life and give it just the right amount of over-the-top theatricality. Everyone’s clothes look designed to a T; the set design is rich and full and lavish, and sometimes even intentionally phony looking for the wild, fantasy-set, old-fashioned song and dance routines. But in addition to this, there are also the mellow, touching songs that express tentative attraction, melancholy, hope and worry, love and loss.
All done in a traditional jazz style, the songs still manage to have the variety and ups and downs the story does in order to move us. There are parts of La La Land that hit really hard. It isn’t afraid to take us to new emotional levels; areas of heartbreak that aren’t seen in the upbeat musicals of yesterday. Perhaps all of us—even those who like to dream and fantasize about true love, dancing, glamour and romance—have learned after all this time that life isn’t always easy. Relationships don’t always last.
In that sense, La La Land also takes risks, and it’s the willingness to embrace the fanciful nature of the musical film and have reverence for its sincerity that allows it to take that chance—and allows it succeed. | Nic Champion