Friday, December 16, 2016

It's Hard Not To Be Swept Away By 'La La Land'

This review originally appeared on

I'm a bitter cynic who's long insisted I don't like musicals, even though there's more than one in my list of top 20 favorite movies, and just hearing songs from my favorite childhood animated films can cause me to burst into instantaneous tears.

When I learned a few years ago, after watching both versions of True Grit, that I didn't actually hate Westerns, I just hated bad Westerns, it made me realize the same holds true for my other generally disliked genre, musicals.

A bad musical can make you roll your eyes, cringe in embarrassment, and question the need for all that singing. But in a good musical, a sudden song and dance number can perfectly illuminate the inner feelings of its characters like nothing else. And when a musical is at its best, it can make the hearts of an audience swell. There's really no other way to explain it.

La La Land is a musical that understands that heart-swelling.

From the very beginning, the film announces its intentions of golden era cinema style in a modern setting, with a "Presented in CinemaScope" title card that leads to a widescreen frame presenting one of Los Angeles's worst aspects: Bumper to bumper freeway traffic.

But even the worst of L.A. (and really, that traffic is the only bad thing about the city that's ever shown in the film) is turned into something exciting and beautiful, as the drivers start to sing, and then get out of their cars to dance, leaping, jumping, and pirouetting in a six-minute musical number that looks like it was shot in one sweeping take. (It wasn't.)

Within that traffic jam are our hero, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and our heroine, Mia (Emma Stone), whose romantic comedy meet-cute moment includes horn honking and middle finger flipping.

Mia is a struggling actress who works at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, when she isn't rushing from audition to audition. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own jazz club, preferably in a venue he covets, a once legendary place that has been turned into a "samba tapas" restaurant.

Los Angeles is a giant small town, so it's inevitable that Mia and Sebastian should meet, more than once. It's the third time that's the charm, as they leave a party together in search of her parked car, a walk that ends with a song and dance number filmed against the purple sunset.

Director Damien Chazelle shoots these dance numbers the way they used to be shot, which is to say, the way they should be shot, as uninterrupted scenes that show the dancers in full frame — no manic cutting full of close-ups of tapping feet.

Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are merely adequate dancers, performing choreography by Mandy Moore (the other one) that is never too challenging. They're also merely adequate singers that, ironically, were this movie actually made during the golden era, would have probably been dubbed over by stronger voices.

I'm sure there are better singers and dancers out there who can also act, but the movie would then have to give up Gosling and Stone's immense natural charm and completely believable chemistry. So, in this case, I'll take two actors who can easily make me laugh and cry during the non-musical scenes over some Tony-level singing and dancing talents.

Plus, Chazelle understands the limitations of his stars, and makes up for it by placing them in numbers where the setting and the cinematography do the heavy lifting. One such scene is a first date at the Griffith Observatory that finds Mia and Seb literally floating on air while they quickly fall in love.

La La Land is unabashedly romantic, both in Mia and Seb's love story, and also in its love of Los Angeles, classic Hollywood, and jazz. It's hard not to be swept away by it. There are so many moments that left me wanting to clap with joy, and the ending managed to both break my swelling heart and make it swell again.

I just wish the central story wasn't so run-of-the-mill. I'm not sure anyone loves Hollywood as much as Hollywood seems to love itself. There have been countless stories about Hollywood hopefuls, and La La Land's is really not that new. Seb is talented but stubborn! He doesn't want to tarnish his artistic integrity and sell out, until, of course, he's given the opportunity, and the paycheck, that selling out can offer. Meanwhile, Mia is a dreamer whose optimism is being worn down... if only she could get that one big break!

And while La La Land's look certainly feels fresh, it's only because this style of musical hasn't been seen in a while. But it has been done. Martin Scorsese even did something similar with his 1977 film New York, New York, by using classic musical filming techniques paired with modern acting styles. At times the effect was jarring, and the film was a pretty big flop. But I can see a lot of its influence in La La Land, down to a male lead who just wants to open a "genuine" jazz club, and a female lead with Hollywood stars in her eyes.

Within the film, Sebastian complains about L.A. saying, "They worship everything and value nothing." I see it a little differently: they worship themselves, and then reward that worship with Oscars. And La La Land will probably get a lot of them.

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