It takes a lot of audacity to mount an old-fashioned Hollywood musical in these cynical times. Once a genre unto itself, usually a romantic story expressed in song and dance numbers ("All singing! All dancing!" the ads used to scream), the movie musical has been devalued in the age of irony.
Audiences who readily lap up zombies, vampires, and skyscraper-sized aliens are unable to suspend their disbelief for people breaking into song in the middle of their daily lives.
Only in Disney Princess cartoons do characters sing their hearts out onscreen (which is okay, because they're not, you know, real), or in the occasional film set in a musical milieu, like Once, where the characters bond through performing together.
|Stone, Gosling: twilight|
But Damien Chazelle's masterful La La Land makes the movie musical sing again. And dance. And how! As dubious as you might find the idea of a modern musical starring actors — Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone — not previously known for their singing or dancing chops, this is one glorious joyride from start to finish.
The stars are capable and appealing, the locations all around greater Los Angeles County (including my home town of Hermosa Beach) look as magical as any film set, and Chazelle finds exciting new ways to reinvent the genre at every turn.
|Gosling: piano man|
Appropriately enough, for a movie set in LA, the story begins on a freeway during a traffic jam. As horns blare, and traffic slows to a halt, the overhead camera zeroes in on one woman driver who starts singing. She emerges from her car and starts dancing, with other motorists of all ages, shapes, and colors (just like the population of LA) climbing out of their cars and join in.
It's a massive production number ("Another Day of Sun") that not only makes brilliant use of the freeway structure and immobilized cars as dancing props, it shows us just how much fun this movie is going to be.
When traffic starts up again Mia (Stone) has a fleeting, rude encounter with Sebastian (Gosling). She's an aspiring actress on her way to work at a coffeeshop on a movie studio backlot, where she can be close to the auditions she's always running off to. She shares an apartment with three other hopeful actresses in an old Art Deco building; after they drag her off to a party, she's on her way home when she wanders into a piano bar where Seb is playing.
|Dancing with the stars: Griffith Observatory|
Now the movie switches over to Sebastian's story after the freeway incident. He's a jazz musician reduced to playing Christmas carols in the bar (it's winter, when the story begins) to fund his dream of opening his own jazz club one day. (J. K. Simmons — co-star of Chazelle's last film, Whiplash —cameos as Seb's deadpan boss.)
Mia is drawn to a particularly hypnotic refrain Seb is playing, that echoes throughout the story. But even though their second encounter does not go well, they begin circling into each other's orbits and their relationship blossoms.
The rest of the story is best left to the viewer to experience. The themes are universal—pursuing dreams; staying true to oneself — but the storytelling is fresh. Mandy Moore's choreography is outstanding, from that huge freeway number to Mia and Seb's lovely tap duet as they start to fall in love, on a ridge overlooking LA at twilight. In a fabulous fantasy duet, they rise up into the starmap of the interior dome of Griffith Park Observatory — literally dancing with the stars.
|Stone and Gosling: to the Lighthouse|
Using iconic LA landmarks and neighborhoods —the venerable Lighthouse jazz club in Hermosa (and the beachfront and pier); Watts Towers; The Grand Cenral Market; the vintage Rialto Theatre, the Angel's Flight cable car — Chazelle creates a visual reverie on the City of Dreams, an LA that may only exist in the imagination.
And while he stays true in spirit to classic musicals, Chazelle's wistful, and poignant finale gives the movie an unexpected edge. La La Land is a virtuoso production that gives us all something to sing (and dance) about.