Contemporary Hollywood bears no trace of the charm, sophistication and passion of its Golden Age. While American Theater has managed to retain a bit of its dignity, American Cinema is almost completely tainted by the smog of Channing Tatum’s spray tan. Today’s stars feel self-conscious over the lack of impact they’ve had, they turn to pop-politics and share their eighth-grade level knowledge in a hundred and forty characters or less. They join a girl squad and frequent the late night circuit reassuring us how down to earth they are. And the magic is gone. That’s partly why this year’s return to Golden Age entertainment, both in style and subject matter, was so well received. Of course, I’m talking about La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s sincere, refreshing romance, set against a nostalgically presented present day L.A.
The musical masterpiece took me by surprise. Had I known many were considering it a piece of musical theater, I would have been more nervous going in, given my disinterest in contemporary musicals. But I’d venture to say La La Land isn’t so much a true musical – at least, it isn’t musical theater. Rather, it uses classic Hollywood style musical-numbers as a device. And it’s done very cleverly, always serving the film and never feeling indulgent or self celebratory.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a down-on-his luck-jazz pianist trying to get on his feet after being ‘shanghaied.’ He pays the bills by playing keyboard in bad tribute bands and performing Christmas carols in restaurants. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress, pounding the pavement, relentlessly auditioning when she isn’t working her job as a barista. After several failed meet-cutes, a romance finally ignites between the two over a tap dance atop the sparkling hills of LA. A whirlwind love story ensues, built upon dreams, passions and uncertain paths.
As you can imagine, the music is the backbone of the film. Less obvious is Chazelle’s unique take on a musical. Instead of grafting musical numbers onto a less prioritized script – like most musicals do – he wrote a beautiful screenplay and employed his Whiplash collaborator to score the entire film, from the biggest of musical numbers to the smallest of cues. Then creatives brought in seasoned musical theater writers to provide lyrics to the numbers – and the tactic pays off. The score feels cohesive and relevant to the story – the melodic themes are as impactful as the cinematography itself. The music stays in its own lane and plays to its strengths. Movie musical are typically overstuffed, featuring five-too-many songs – not unlike my reviews. La La Land, conversely, sticks to the same few musical motifs and explores them fully.
The unorthodox take on musical numbers goes beyond their composition – they benefit from a classic, less-is-more execution. Coming off of the painstakingly “raw and real” era of singing in movies, the return to “singing to track” and deft vocalizations is a breath of fresh air. In your average musical, the girls’ number at the beginning of film would have been a lightly veiled sing-off. Instead, with Chazelle at the helm, that particular number (and the rest of them for that matter) charm the audience and carry the movie forward.
The numbers set a mood and illustrate the characters idealistic view of both the city and the entertainment industry. The choreography is just as unassuming and modest as the singing – another rarity in the day and age of So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars, which, from what I understand does not feature dance, but rather showcases bodybuilding and figure skating tricks. Ironically, the choreographer, Mandy Moore (not the singer), has history with both of the above shows. But she leaves the tacky tricks at home and does a wonderful job, delivering classic choreography that relies on natural ease and musicality more than skill or intense showmanship.
The Oscar-nominated performances are actually award worthy in this case. In fact, the performances may very well be the driving force of the film; I don’t say that lightly, especially when a film succeeds across the board, from editing to costuming. But if you’re at all familiar with either Emma Stone or Ryan Gosling, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they hit it out of the park. Both excel in most genres and contexts when they’re given equally strong content. I was taken back by how the pair manage to be consistently effective, whether in a big musical number or a more traditional scene of dialogue. And they both shine in definitively different ways.
Emma Stone has been steadily coming up in the film industry over the past ten years. While her first major film was Superbad, I was first introduced to her in the teen comedy, Easy A. At the tender age of 16 (14 in homeschool-years), I was instantly enamored. Even though it is one of the better teen comedies of the decade, it was still a goofy offering to the high school crowd – complete with a Gossip Girl hunk and a pre-meltdown Amanda Bynes (who, as it so happens, kills it). Even so, Stone stood out as a serious leading actress with a serious talent for comedy. But the most enchanting moments are undoubtedly the few dramatic scenes – a side of the actress that would come to fruition in later breakout roles in The Help, Birdman and, now, this topical Oscar-winner..
She very well might be the actress of her generation and if that’s the case, it’s understandable if you only glance at her credits. It’s interesting that she just happened to dabble in theater just before La La Land. And it wasn’t one of those new-fangled musicals where that guy raps and sounds like a missing voice actor from Dora the Explorer. Impressively, Stone took over the lead role in the most recent revival of the historical, award-winning musical Cabaret. It’s clear to me that this role prepared her immeasurably for her latest performance. Her dedication and respect for her art is evident – let’s just hope it stays that way. I’m already cringing over this “Cruella” movie she’s attached to.
Ryan Gosling gives a performance equally strong as his co-star’s, even if it’s notably less impactful. Rather, his biggest accomplishment is his newly acquired and impressive talent on the piano – a skill he picked up over mere months of rehearsal, according to the director. His dancing is surprisingly strong, as well, displaying natural grace and ease with a countenance reminiscent of James Dean. It’s clear to me there’s a hundred times more artistry in his understated movement than the affronting, gymnastic-esque dancing we presently see on television and in modern dance concerts.
I for one think its time for a return to entertainment that showcases a variety of talent – acting, singing, dancing. Leave the solo dancing and singing and acting to the professionals: which, if you ask me, is limited to professional ballet dancers, Adele and Judy Dench. Besides those exceptions, I don’t want to watch a movie musical where a boarding school trained tenor screlts his songs into the camera (looking at you, Jeremy Jordan) with feeble acting ability that should have stayed on the theme-park stage. I digress.
Gosling’s voice is nice, though nothing special, which is perfectly fine; it called to mind the leading man, Tommy Sands, in the old Disney classic, Babes In Toyland. A leading man’s acting ability, presence and good looks will always carry more weight than a trained voice. Stone’s voice is in the same camp, that’s to say, it’s really nothing special. But it does the job and charms inexhaustibly. The only time the movie really wades into musical theater territory is when it coincidingly shows its musical vulnerability, wether that be Ryan Goslings bared singing of the City of Stars, winner of Best Song, or Stone’s intimately sung number. Unexpectedly, the biggest production numbers are the least musical theater evoking, and, rather, solidify the film’s commentary on and admiration for golden-age Hollywood.
This masterpiece is unquestionably the result of expert curation of a vision by a brilliant team of creators, namely Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz. The duo had already proven themselves with Whiplash, so to that end, La La Land really shouldn’t have been such a surprising success. The costumes are breathtaking, the musical numbers are awe-inspiring and the performances are soul-piercing – but of course they are, because that’s what old Hollywood was about and that’s what Chazelle set out to celebrate and successfully accomplished, thanks to his innovative mind. Celebration of something bigger than oneself will always reach further and wider than the all-too-common aim for self-glorification that seems to becoming more identifiable in the movies.
A final thought: having stared at a series of drafts of this review for weeks now, it’s clear to me that the more passionate you are about something, the harder it is to do. There’s a misconception that if you’re passionate about something, it will be easier to accomplish. But the truth is passion directly correlates with struggle. The more passionate you are about something, the more you’ll struggle with it – because anything that’s worth having doesn’t come easily. But still, the more passionate you are about something, the more certain you can be that it’s what you’re meant to do. And even then, there will be times when we need help remembering why we’re struggling for our passions. And those who help us stay the path are as important as the passion itself. And that’s exactly what La La Land is about.