“But jazz is dying. People say, ‘Jazz had its time, let it die’ but I’m here to say, ‘not on my watch.’’’ This is the voice of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who explains to Mia (Emma Stone) the beauty and the importance of the genre. Though this is the character speaking, it’s also clear to me that writer-director Damien Chazelle is advocating for the resurgence of the Musical, a film genre which, aside from the occasional Disney feature, seems as absent at the theater as the Western. Yet, La La Land, Chazelle’s third movie, is a veritable exercise in recreating the cinematic ambience of the MGM musicals of yester-year. This is, of course, a hard-enough sell to today’s movie-goers and would have been impossible to market without the existence of Whiplash (Chazelle’s hailed fireball of a drama).
Though it also has elements of jazz music, La La Land is a different animal than Whiplash. It’s like the difference between pessimism and optimism; one makes you moody and anxious while the other makes you want to sing and dance. La La Land obviously belongs to the latter, and is more sanguine and nicer to its protagonists. That is not to say they do not struggle. It’s a fascinating dichotomy in the way Chazelle blends the heartbreaking, jaded pitfalls of “making it big” in Hollywood with the typically joyous, innocent nature of musicals, impressive in its conceit, to say the least. We see Mia’s heartfelt audition (complete with tears) suddenly interrupted by a producer’s phone call. We see Sebastian kicked out from his holiday-pianist gig for improvising a stirring jazz rendition—music he would rather play than unenthusiastically pluck keys from “Jingle Bells.” But after their pitfalls, we are treated to their musical rise, as they croon and tap-dance and waltz into each other’s hearts. It’s quite sweet, and Gosling and Stone’s romantic chemistry could not be more convincing or multi-layered.
The musical sequences are where the film really shines, and Chazelle shows off his keen eye for directing these kinetic scenes. They’re really an homage to older musicals, where the sunset backdrop looks like a set, or how bold, primary colors dominate the screen. Chazelle fills the frame with these kinds of aesthetic touches, treating the screen like a stage. Spotlights are used to highlight Gosling and Stone, and the audience becomes lost and transfixed in the simple beauty of Gosling’s piano playing, or in a close-up of Stone’s face that captures her in a moment of vulnerability. And that’s the whole point of the homage of these musical scenes: to elevate the audience and the film’s own characters into a euphonious dream, to escape the harshness of reality. And, boy, does it sound good. Justin Herwitz’ score only uses four leitmotifs throughout the film, but they’re sweet and tender, quite evocative of a burgeoning romance.
I liked this film because it avoids being too saccharine or too biting in its demeanor; in other words, it’s perhaps the most pleasant, most wholesome romantic movie I’ve seen in a long time and a technical feat to boot (just watch that opening number!). The only, minor quibble I have is that Chazelle himself is questioning if La La Land is a good idea. It is confidently produced, but there are words that he’s written that seem that he doubts his own risk. Before he meets Mia, Sebastian declares, “Romance is dead.” Or, when Mia is writing her own stage play, she ponders, “Are you sure it’s not too emotional?” Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but, I will say, Mr. Chazelle, the affectionate, yet melancholy tone was enjoyable.
Written and Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, J.K. Simmons
Distributed by: Summit Entertainment