‘La La Land’ offers fresh spin on classic movie musical

by TYLER YORK//Editorial Assistant

For a generation that grew up entrenched in Hollywood cynicism, “La La Land” is a passionate and captivating appeal for sincerity.

Directed by Damien Chazelle, the film revolves around a would-be actress named Mia, played by Emma Stone, and a fixated jazz musician named Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling. Both live in a vibrant depiction of Los Angeles that is at once breathtaking and soul-crushing. Like many of the city’s inhabitants, both seek things that always seem to be just out of their reach.

Mia tries to squeeze in auditions around her job at a coffee shop. Despite her efforts, she is rejected at every turn. She is shown repeatedly pouring her heart out for indifferent casting directors, only to have her auditions interrupted, in some cases after just a few words are spoken. Instead, she has to settle for serving coffee in agonizing proximity to regular film shoot locations on a Hollywood backlot, where she can watch through the windows while her dreams silently taunt her just beyond the glass.

Sebastian used to be a working jazz pianist, until he was fired from a historic club he worshipped for the great names who had played there before. The new owners have stripped away all traces of its former history, and Seb admits to regularly driving miles out of his way to get coffee within eyesight of the building as a way to cope with the perceived injustice. Even though Seb attempts to work smaller gigs that are obviously beneath him, his passion for playing music that means something drives him away from the mundane. He one day hopes to own a jazz club, and his intent is to put it right at the site of the same one he used to love so dearly.

The cliché of a love story featuring young performers struggling to survive and succeed against the trials of the big city is hardly new. But it could be argued that this one is an account not just of love between two people, but one of love for those daring to dream larger than their own lives.

Throughout the film, situations are presented that mirror those from modern-day life. The first shot of the movie’s first song “Another Day of Sun,” for example, begins with an infamous Los Angeles traffic jam that extends as far as the eye can see. But where this image in many films might elicit a sarcastic remark or a look on a protagonist’s face of understandable boredom and frustration, “La La Land” throws its first of many curveballs when the drivers suddenly leap from their vehicles to sing and dance their way through the motionless vehicles.

The entire opening scene feels like something from another time, back when continuity mattered less and disbelief was more often suspended. After all, real people don’t usually leave their cars behind to hop out on the highway and perform synchronized gymnastics. The bright colors of both the cars and clothing in combination with the joyous dancing motorists seem to defy the usual picture of daily driving, but it’s a contrast that feels exciting and nostalgic rather than forced.

Mia and Seb’s initial meeting definitely isn’t a romanticized accidental encounter, or even romantic at all. It’s filled with the everyday realism of jaded city-goers—their first interaction is right there in the stalled traffic, hidden behind an exchange of honking horns and gestures thrown out windows.

The theme of overcoming these usual routines of detachment and pessimism is present in nearly every scene. When looking past the picturesque backdrops and the ebb and flow of the protagonists’ relationship present at the forefront of the story, it becomes clear that it’s only when the characters are able to overcome their sarcastic tendencies and allow themselves to be vulnerable and genuine that they can truly begin to thrive.

It should be apparent to most moviegoers that Damien Chazelle, who also wrote the screenplay, is a fan of musical cinema. The 2014 breakout hit “Whiplash” was Chazelle’s first major chance to give wide audiences a deeply personal look into the world of jazz, albeit a much darker and obsessive one that stands in stark contrast to the fuzzy, dreamlike blues and pinks of Mia and Seb’s Los Angeles.

Many parallels can be drawn between “La La Land” and classic works of iconic big-production movie musicals featuring the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—and for good reason: Chazelle held weekly screenings of such films so the cast could better get a feel for what inspired him. Luckily, the nostalgia requires no previous knowledge of such works, and still lands on an audience completely new to the idea of the long presumed dead “jazz musical” genre.

The dedication to excellence also translates into extraordinary performances from the cast. Gosling reportedly learned how to play jazz piano for the role in just three months, and every close-up of Seb’s fingers on the keys during the movie is Gosling, not an audio double. Also surprising was Stone’s musical earnestness, seen in solos such as “Audition,” when Chazelle chose to poignantly fade out the background as the camera slowly pushes into a close-up of her impressive emotional delivery, with the world dissolving away behind her.

Also reminiscent of older, classic productions are the long, unbroken camera takes present in every musical scene. These shots are big and blatant, and instead of feeling like an overreach, they lend a quality of great spectacle and authentic grandiosity to the film. Certainly, an average person would never interrupt a conversation about the gorgeous view of the city from a hilltop to have a tap dance battle. But the sequences are presented in a larger-than-life style that blissfully celebrates the absurd and the creative, in spite of what society might deem too far for reality.

It’s clear to the viewer that Stone and Gosling aren’t Broadway-trained singers and dancers. But the honesty of their effort adds another layer of truth to a film already so willing to be both original work and homage. Combined with dazzling, dreamy visuals and a sparkling score, it’s no wonder  “La La Land” has positioned itself firmly next to the year’s many award winners and nominees.

It’s an unpretentious ode to those who dare to dream big, even when it means not getting everything you want. I give “La La Land” 5 out of 5 stars.

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