La La Land (2016)
It is a great loss to modern cinema that the most escapist of all film genres, the Hollywood-Broadway musical, has been presumed buried for decades. Born in an era of world wars and depression, the musical was the most effective happy pill ever invented. Only in the musical could you find the unbridled eruption of emotion expressed through spontaneous song and dance with scant regard for narrative or dialogue and even less for everyday reality. Closely related to the fantasy genre, the Hollywood musical has resurfaced in modern hybrids but the traditional form exists only in libraries and memories. That is, until you see La La Land (2016).
The opening scenes are a perfect example of old fashioned musical showbiz, driven entirely by spectacle rather than logic. High on a Los Angeles freeway a young woman jumps out of her traffic-jammed car and bursts into song and dance. She is joined by scores of other motorists all gyrating in sync, filmed from above, in a single take. A boy and a girl make eye contact (not in a nice way) and this is where the story begins. Mia (Emma Stone) spends her days humiliated by repeatedly missing out on auditions for her ‘big chance’ in Hollywood, while Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a surly dreamer who wants to open a jazz club for people who love jazz. It’s not a good start for romance, but a pre-dawn song and dance routine – a la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – sets them up for love. This is a story about dreamers and the dream factory, carried aloft by music and generously wrapped in nostalgia.
Beneath it all there is a narrative but it feels inconsequential to the music. The bitter-sweet romance is just a harmonic scaffold for songs and dance to lift you with promises and hopes then land you onto the rocks of life’s disappointments. The characters of Mia and Sebastian are not developed in great depth because they are avatars for generations of dreamers who have been drawn like moths to fame. But their synergy is palpable.
This film is full of memorable moments. The scene where Sebastian talks passionately about the dynamics of jazz musicianship is captivating; the moonlight walks through the city are surreal; and the final scene against a painfully hesitant piano solo of ‘City of Stars’ will squeeze tears out of anyone – and then make you hum the melody for days.
Great cinematography is not unusual these days but the La La Land camera is like an artist’s brush that composes beautiful portraits against stunning urban landscapes in colour palettes that are richly retro yet totally modern. This is a film to bathe yourself in, let its exuberance, musicality, and nonsensical scenes of flyaway romance dazzle you. Today’s world needs more la la land.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt