Directed by Damien Chazelle
2016 Musical Drama
2 hours 8 minutes
Tom Everett Scott
Damien Chazelle, whoever you are, I thank you. I really, really thank you. For a bloody change I get to see a new, original musical in my local cineplex and not a DVD of an old but treasured one I've put in my player for the 100th time. Boys and girls, put on your happy faces, your pretty combinations and your tap shoes and head to your local movie palace for two hours of glorious, colorful, smile-inducing escapism.
If you think Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are odd choices for a musical, consider how odd it is that we have a new musical at all, not to mention one that comes with so much anticipation. I think the last one of any importance was Dreamgirls in 2006, so we can't exactly say that we're saturated with the genre. Before that I believe it was Chicago in 2002, And don't forget, as we question Stone and Gosling in a musical, Chicago had Richard Gere and Renee Zellweger and it all seemed to work out pretty well considering it not only won Oscar's best picture but was the first musical to do so in over 30 years.
I know there are those who wish there was never another new musical made. There are others who don't mind them if the musical numbers are sung on a stage (think Cabaret, for one) but dislike them when performers up and sing in cafes or dance in the streets (think West Side Story, for one). Unfortunately for you guys, La La Land in that regard is like West Side Story. Fortunately for me, I don't care where they sing and dance... I just want someone to do it.
The title has a dual meaning. Certainly it is meant to evoke thoughts of Los Angeles, which by the way, has probably never been filmed more lovingly or beautifully (rather like Woody Allen's many valentines to Manhattan). But the title also describes the dreamers who live there. And here we focus on two of them.
The story is slight and they often are in musicals because, c'mon now, it's about those tap shoes (do start looking for yours) and those songs. Sebastian and Mia dream about hitting the big time. He plays the piano and is a lover of jazz. He believes jazz is dying and he wants it to come back to life. He dreams about opening up his own club. Mia wants to be an actress but is currently a waitress at a Warner Bros. coffee shop (that's handy) who goes on a lot of auditions. What neither reckoned on in the midst of all this turmoil is one another. A relationship was not a part of their mindset and yet we are happy they are together. They may not make it... we wonder. We do know they're both pursuing work that is not always in harmony with relationships.
An interesting side note, perhaps, is Gosling and Stone once were an item, I believe. I think this occurred during and/or after making their films, Crazy, Stupid Love (2011) and Gangster Squad (2013). I found a somewhat wistful feeling in watching them together again.
Let's handle some of that acting/singing/dancing. There is truly something radiant about Emma Stone... in every film, by the way, but especially here. I wonder if she might have been originally considered because she looks like a dreamer... those big eyes that show such yearning and the hopefulness that her Mia maintains for most of the story. There is such an honesty in her acting... you feel you could just as easily be sitting on the sofa gabbing with her than seeing her 10-feet tall on that Cinemascope screen.
Neither she nor her pal are great singers or dancers but they also don't need to be. They kept their voices in the registers they could handle and the sound department added some of those tapping sounds, but we are not quibbling. They completely engaged me from the first tap to the last.
I remember when I first heard that Gosling was going to be in a musical and I thought what...?!?!?! I adore him as an actor-- let's be clear-- but isn't he just a little too, um, intense for light 'n airy fare like this? Well, the answer is no. I was pleased to be wrong. He was just what was needed actually... a little taste of sour to keep that sweet from getting too sweet.
The two of them may be Oscar contenders (yes, Virginia, really) and aside from their energetic musical performances there is a honey of a scene at the dinner table where they are discussing their future together to which you must pay good attention. Beautiful acting, superb writing.
The rest of the cast, fine as they are (great to see and hear John Legend), have little to do. This is all Stone and Gosling... and a lot of sensational specialty dancers.
The film opens up with a large-scale production number with many original songs along the way to keep you toe-tapping throughout.
Back to my own opening... who is Damien Chazelle? I know he was the writer-director of the very-different-from-this-film, Whiplash (2014). Both have a musical connection and feature J. K. Simmons, but the likeness seems to end there. I have seen a Chazelle interview and heard his acceptance speeches on award shows and he seems like a wide-eyed dreamer whose dreams have come true. His writing is incisive and intelligent and thoughtful. The direction it would have taken to pull together such an ambitious project will see him get a few more awards.
|The superb writer-director|
He certainly didn't do it alone and I give it four stars not simply because I am gaga over musicals but because it is, in fact, so ambitious and because I could find nothing wrong with it. If I made myself come up with something, perhaps it might be some music drowned out voices, but you don't know how difficult it is to say even that.
Chazelle, yes, had some great folks working for him. Gimme a sec to look up these names so I can credit them appropriately. There is a gorgeous look to this film, full of vivid color, picture-postcard shots of Los Angeles, wondrous closeups, and kudos galore to the director of photography, Linus Sandgren. Bravo, too, to David Wasco's spot-on production design and to the set direction of Sandy Reynolds-Wasco and art direction of Austin Gorg. Loved the look of those solid-colored dresses designed by Mary Zophres and her team. How could one forget the music by Justin Hurwitz or choreography by Mandy Moore when it's done this well?
So there you are. If you don't like musicals, there's nothing here for you. And if you do, if you have spent one moment thinking I wish someone brought out another musical, here it is. A very good one as well. And the timing is great. We need this more now than ever.
(tomorrow, by the way)