Review by © Jane Freebury
Why this? Why now? A singing-dancing entertainment brimming with optimism to close a tough, unruly year and open a new one that will take us who knows where? What timing.
It is curious that Hollywood musicals first blossomed in the 1930s along with gangster films, so James Cagney could cross genres and play either a gangster or a tap dancer. They coincided with times of social upheaval in the US and in Europe, enjoying a good run until they were seen off in the 1960s. Not that the musical has ever disappeared. Viva Las Vegas, Saturday Night Fever or Moulin Rouge anyone? While in Bollywood, the musical has long been part and parcel of the mainstream.
La La Land could usher in a new generation of musicals. While a single film doesn’t a revival make, we can expect to see more of them in the wake of this exuberant, uplifting new film from Damien Chazelle, who announced his arrival with Whiplash a few years ago. Light and airy until things become a bit serious, La La Land demonstrates how a 21st century musical can be contemporary, honour the classic tradition and still have a life of its own. And this is an original musical, not a film of a stage production. Terrific as they were, Les Miserables and Chicago of recent times had already proved their worth on the stage.
At the start, La La Land is determined to be upbeat and take us with it. We lurch into an improbable set piece at the start with the camera swooping through and around dozens of singing, dancing commuters during gridlock on a Los Angeles freeway. We could be forgiven for thinking the film is playing back-to-front, and the spectacle is the final curtain. After this, things settle down, as the set pieces are largely integrated and advance the narrative.
As jazz musician Sebastian and aspiring actor Mia, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone make a very appealing and plausible 21st century couple. They begin as the classic screwball mismatch, but there is common ground. Both are rigorous in their standards and look with nostalgia to the past, as Seb adheres to jazz traditions while Mia reveres the character actors of the Hollywood golden age. In the flat she shares with girlfriends, her room is dominated by a huge close-up of the actors’ actor, Ingrid Bergman.
LA may be the city of sun as the opening number declares, but it’s also a conduit to something else—a career. Mia’s job in a café on the Warner Bros lot allows her to eyeball some of the stars who drop by for takeaway, and to duck out when she gets a call from casting. Seb wants his own jazz club to showcase the music he admires, but he eventually bows to compromise when he joins a jazz-funk band that gives him steady pay, even agrees to bite his lip and look moody for photo shoots.
Dancing may be the vertical expression of horizontal desire, but their relationship looks charmingly chaste, so contrary to today’s mores. That emerald green dress than Mia wears on the couple’s first date recalled for me Cyd Charisse in green when she performs a smouldering showstopper with Gene Kelly in the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain. Nothing like that happens here.
It may be unfair to compare, though hard not to, the singing and dancing in La La Land with the work of Kelly, Astaire, Rogers and the set pieces Busby Berkeley created. Stone and Gosling are very talented dramatic actors who dance and sing well, and it's great to see how accomplished Gosling is on keyboards, but it’s more story and less spectacle here and where we have singing and dancing sequences, they are spectacular because of the staging, production design and the beautiful cinematography.
Of course, La La Land is an ardent love letter to the movies. To mount this terrific production, the American movie industry has mustered generous resources and assigned them to a relative newcomer. Faith rewarded.
It is easy to point to a certain self-regard in this homage to the dream factory, but writer-director Chazelle, the son of professors, doesn’t treat us as mugs. He reminds us we can still be lulled into fantasy with the brilliant ‘might have been’ montage that flashes before Mia’s eyes five years later. It’s not exactly an alternate ending, but the film is having a bit of fun with the wishes and expectations that we unconsciously create at the movies, anyway.
Also published at Jane's blog