The musical is somewhat like the western, in the sense that they were dominant film genres from the ’30s to the ’50s but have since fallen out of fashion. The western comes back every ten years or so, while the musical—probably due to its deliberately artificial nature—struggles to. La La Land, however, might have just reinvented the musical, and may reach a whole new audience who have never even seen a musical before.
Emma Stone stars as the wannabe film actress Mia, who is a barista at the backlot of a non-specified studio where she “serves the stars.” Ryan Gosling is the jazz pianist Sebastian, who is playing jazzed-up versions of Christmas classics and keyboards in a ’80s covers band to make ends meet. Both are dreamers, Mia dreams of Hollywood stardom and Sebastian wants to open his own jazz nightclub where he can also perform. Naturally they will meet and fall in love, but soon their respective successes start to tear them up apart from one another.
First and foremost, like all great musicals it’s a visual tour de force from the opening car jam that morphs into an insane musical number that recalls the opening of Fellini’s 8½ to the film’s final moments in a dark jazz nightclub. Damien Chazelle enlists the cinematographer Linus Sandgren to work his magic. His numerous continuous takes bring the film to life. The production design recalls the classic Hollywood musical, but also the vibrant colours of Pedro Almodóvar’s work especially Mia’s bedroom with the giant Ingrid Bergman poster. Chazelle also looked to the French New Wave musical Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, because it used the classic Hollywood musical style but within a more downbeat and “real” story.
Ryan Gosling has been a butt of jokes because of his brooding acting style, which is mostly done through his eyes. However, I’ve always been a fan and in La La Land and The Nice Guys he really shows his knack for comedy–and in this film he turns out to be a great song and dance man. Emma Stone dazzles the screen from her first appearance to the last. Originally Miles Teller and Emma Watson were set to star, which would have been a very different film. They probably would have lacked the chemistry that Gosling and Stone just radiate on-screen.
It’s really Gosling and Stone’s film, but it does have an amusing extended cameo from J. K. Simmons, who Chazelle directed to Oscar stardom in their last collaboration, Whiplash. This is the third jazz-themed film by Chazelle, and while it’s another great movie, I hope he tries something un-jazz related for his next effort. However, every single frame is gorgeous, it doesn’t have the cop-out ending that it could easily have had, and the musical numbers at times border on the surreal. It’s one of the best films of the year and I would be surprised if it doesn’t bring home a Oscar or two.