From the brief opening moments where a small, squared, black and white shot opens wide into color, declaring ‘Presented in Cinemascope’ in large, broad letters emblazoned across the screen, you’d be forgiven for thinking that everything that follows is either going to be a pastiche or a parody, but, in fact, it’s neither. La La Land with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling is the real thing: a bona fide, original, honest-to-God, Hollywood movie musical. Pinch me, I must be dreaming.
That brief moment where Cinemascope is mentioned – a sign we haven’t seen since maybe the sixties? – is the film’s way of letting us know that the romantic musical we’re about to see has nothing to do with Broadway; it’s all about the movies. Plus, the film’s title can be taken two ways. It’s either the dreamy nickname used to describe the California based industry city where most of the action takes place, or it’s the fantasy-based state of mind that the emerges when you spend too much time there.
Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) is lost in the movies. Her bedroom apartment is decorated in old movie posters such as The Black Cat or Lilies of the Field, plus there’s a massive painted portrait of Ingrid Bergman covering one of the walls. She even works at Warner Bros. studios, but she’s not a performer, not yet. She serves coffee and cake in a corner shop on the studio lot. In addition to maintaining a living, the coffee shop serves another purpose; Mia can attend studio auditions between breaks, even if she’s casually and continuously dispatched by the casting agent in order to make way for the next auditionee.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is lost in a different world. He’s a jazz pianist, a musical purist with attitude, and even though he’s told explicitly by his nightclub boss (J.K. Simmons) that it’s Christmas and he’s only to play traditional Christmas tunes for tips, the man can’t help bursting into a moment of free-style jazz, a move that will cost him his job. Sebastian’s la la land is the dream of owning his own nightclub where free-style jazz is all that is played, but the odds and the demands of modern taste are against it. Like the character Drew in Rock of Ages, Sebastian is forced to temporarily put aside his purist objections and don 80’s boy-band clothes while playing keyboards covering the pop hits of A-Ha and A Flock of Seagulls at an LA pool party.
The love story of these two dreamers of differing ambitions takes place throughout the course of a single year. It’s a will-they or won’t-they remain together tale, told with chapter headings indicating each new season. It begins in winter, though this being Los Angeles, the sun is shining, the cloudless sky is a deep blue, and the palm trees gently sway in the customary cool breeze. Only the twinkling, colorful lights decorating a store and the fake, white tinsel tree standing in Mia’s apartment indicate it’s the Christmas season.
What happens the first time they meet is not exactly the stuff of romantic dreams. It’s early morning on a freeway where lines of traffic are stuck in the usual jam, bumper to bumper. As quoited in the Broadway musical The Drowsy Chaperone where the narrator tells the audience that the reason he loves musicals is because players do a song and dance when they have a problem instead of whining about it, the characters in the opening sequence do the same. Filmed in one long, continuous take, the frustrated, stranded drivers sing, each adding a line to the number Another Day of Sun as the camera passes them until eventually every driver bursts out of his or her vehicle and dances.
It’s an unabashedly joyous and surprisingly spectacular beginning where even cinematographer Linus Sandgren becomes an unseen part of Mandy Moore’s choreography as the camera bobs and weaves among the dancers. Once the song ends, the drivers return to their vehicles and the traffic begins to move, Mia and Sebastian flip each other the bird for getting in each others’ way. They don’t know it yet, but we do; by obeying all the rules of the Hollywood movie musical, these two were made for each other. Their first kiss, when it comes, is backed by a full orchestral burst of music consisting of one long, sustaining, climactic note.
Part of the fun of La La Land is finding elements from previous movie musicals that might have inspired writer/director Damien Chazelle as he wrote his script. Whether he intentioned it or not, when Mia first sees Sebastian playing piano at a nightclub and the lights dim around her, it’s Maria seeing Tony at the dance of the gym. The colorful Christmas lights that seem to hang in the air around her until they also fade only adds to the comparison. The volatile nature of the relationship as things develop between the musician and the performer echo New York, New York, and the bittersweet conclusion can’t help but make The Umbrellas of Cherbourg spring to mind.
Ryan Gosling convinces when making Sebastian’s love of jazz in its purist form appear real. When he talks of the origins of Charlie Parker’s nickname or how jazz was first developed in a New Orleans flop house, his passion is genuine, and it’s not just because of Gosling’s delivery; it’s Chazelle’s writing. But ultimately La La Land belongs to Emma Stone who like her supporting role in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) repeats an equally commanding performance. In the way those posters of Hollywood’s golden years often exclaimed of its leading ladies – she sings! she dances! she acts! – Emma does all three and she does them well. Born and raised in Scottsdale, Arizona while her talent for musical theatre was shaped and nurtured right here in Phoenix at Bobb Cooper’s Valley Youth Theatre, Emma is aglow throughout. During an audition sequence where Mia’s monolog is a pretend phone call, her one-way conversation is so movingly authentic that when the casting agent interrupts then dismisses her, you think, are you kidding? Give that girl a Hollywood contract right now.
The original, jazzy score is good, particularly when it’s upbeat as with that large-scale opening number, followed by a well-staged second song, Someone in the Crowd, where Mia and her three girlfriends get ready for a night on the town, their dresses each displaying a single, pure primary color as with the technicolor tradition of the forties and early fifties MGM musicals. But as the relationship develops issues, the film sags, the rhythm slows, and the more reflective moments sung by the same two voices, on their initial hearing, sound repetitive.
During the longer, more dramatic exchanges when things may be turning sour and not heading in the direction that you, or even the two lovers, might want, some audiences may even forget they’re still watching a musical; you yearn for another big ensemble dance routine in the vein of that earlier freeway scene, or perhaps another song with different voices, but they never come. Still, as fans of movie musicals, we should count our blessings. It’s not perfect, but it’s still a delight. For anyone whose spirits were lifted when Gene Kelly sang in the rain, as Mia and Sebastian enter LA’s Griffith Observatory and they literally take flight in song and dance among the stars in the planetarium, you’re right there with them because, as a lover of movie musicals, you know exactly how they feel.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 126 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)