In my experiences, musicals (of any form or fashion) have always felt so fascinatingly far-fetched. It doesn’t take much to get absorbed into its narrative, what with its flashy (and sometimes elaborate) dance sequences and catchy tunes, and it makes for an enjoyable experience overall. But darn it, you will never convince me that someone can realistically break into song in the middle of the street at random and immediately have 5-10 strangers join along. It’s just so ridiculous…ly entertaining! Over its long history, Hollywood has produced some of the best musicals of all-time in WEST SIDE STORY, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, MY FAIR LADY, GREASE, and THE SOUND OF MUSIC (just to name a few). And Damien Chazelle’s latest feature, LA LA LAND, is a love letter not only to Hollywood, but to the entire genre of the “musical.”
The film follows Mia (played by Emma Stone) and Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling), two dreamers who meet and fall in love whilst chasing their ambitions in Los Angeles. Mia wants to become an actress; Sebastian is a jazz enthusiast who plans to open a restaurant/jazz club. As Mia and Sebastian each climb their respective ladders of success, their bond starts to weaken, and inevitably threatens to tear them apart.
Damien Chazelle’s breakout hit, WHIPLASH, was one of my favorite films of 2014. Adolfo and I devoted a nearly 20-minute segment to it when we reviewed it on FORCED PERSPECTIVE and for me, it’s still one of those “I don’t get tired of watching it” films; every time I happen to flip to it on TV, I always stop and watch it. WHIPLASH and LA LA LAND both deal with similar themes, according to Chazelle. Its most common theme is that of “the struggle of being an artist and reconciling your dreams with the need to be human.” In other words, both films deal with individuals who crave success so much that they forget how to be a regular person. While WHIPLASH explores that theme in very cynical terms, LA LA LAND is its spiritual opposite, in that its musical format allows the film to be more upbeat and inviting to a casual audience.
Film geeks in particular will definitely get a kick out of the many famous locations used and/or mentioned in the film, as well as catch visual allusions to other famous Hollywood musicals. In fact, the entire style and look of the film feels like a time machine, instantly transporting you back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, where musicals still reigned supreme. Everything from the costume and set designs to the dance sequences seem so meticulously planned out to the tiniest detail. In the end, you have a film that feels old, yet refreshingly new. It’s a film that embraces the old school, while still being innovative and trying something new. Personally, I feel that the Ryan Gosling character by himself could stand as a metaphor for the entire film.
As mentioned above, Sebastian (Gosling’s character) is a jazz enthusiast who shows undying love for the old school and feels that the genre is dying. During a conversation with Keith (played by John Legend), Sebastian is told that jazz is dying because of people like Sebastian – those who hold on to the old traditions without bringing anything new to the table. “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” Keith asks Sebastian, in a scene from the film’s trailer. And that, my friends, is LA LA LAND in a nutshell; it’s a film that is undoubtedly a love letter to a golden era of movies, while simultaneously adding its own twist on the genre that it is paying tribute to. It may not be “revolutionary,” per se, but it certainly takes what’s old and makes it feel refreshingly new to its audience.
Both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling turn in amazing performances. Gosling evoked a hybrid of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in his portrayal of Sebastian, and there’s more than one dance sequence he’s involved in where he makes both of those Hollywood legends proud. Stone’s performance, full of grace and humility, also evoked a hybrid of famous Hollywood actors, this time in the form of Ginger Rogers and Leslie Caron, and she does those characterizations justice in what I feel is her absolute best performance ever. There is no doubt in my mind that Emma Stone will be raking in award after award over the next 3 months, and they will all be truly deserved. Needless to say, both of these actors have incredible chemistry together, a chemistry and comfort that’s been already built after working together on other films. Both really gave off a “Fred and Ginger” vibe, and it only enhanced the film’s narrative.
I have to also give major props to the film’s music, as Justin Hurwitz does an unbelievable job creating a soundtrack that fully captures the vibe of old school Hollywood, with a modern twist. I pre-ordered the soundtrack on iTunes immediately after exiting the theater, as I absolutely fell in love with the songs and music. The Gosling/Stone duet “A Lovely Night” is one of its standouts, as well as the ensemble number “Someone in the Crowd,” and the Stone solo “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” which admittedly got me right in the heartstrings; just absolutely amazing work by Hurwitz that I plan on enjoying for years to come.
LA LA LAND is as much a love letter to musicals and to old school Hollywood as it is to the city of Los Angeles as well. Residents of Los Angeles and the surrounding area will probably get more out of many of the locations used than non-L.A. folk, but what makes the setting accessible to the audience is not where it is, but what it represents. While Frank Sinatra once sang, “If I could make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” in regards to New York, Los Angeles is just as much the dream maker (and dream killer) that New York is, if not more so. And that whole vibe plays into the film’s themes of success and its costs.
The buzz surrounding LA LA LAND is indeed justified, and I plan on enjoying this film many more times over the next few years. Damien Chazelle hits another homerun, and both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone bring out the best in one another to create awards-worthy performances. The musical, once called an “extinct genre” is given new life with this sensational tribute to a bygone era in movies, with a dose of the modern era thrown in. LA LA LAND currently sits at my No. 1 slot as my favorite film of 2016, and it earns my highest possible recommendation.
Opens in limited release on December 9th, and everywhere on December 16th.