I haven’t seen Moonlight yet (I live in Rochester, New York, not a major city, and it takes awhile for films to get here at times), but La La Land may well be the best film of the year. It’s not perfect, but it reaches higher, and succeeds more, than any other film I’ve seen this year except perhaps Manchester by the Sea.
Director/screenwriter Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) has done the near-impossible. He’s not just created a musical, but he’s created a modern cinematic context where anyone but the most cynical can accept the conceits of the classic musical—that folks can sing and dance in the real world, occasionally being joined by others, and of course, with lots of orchestral background. No one has tried that, at least with this level of success, in years.
Its numbers are dazzling at times (a word I use precisely), especially the first number that obliterates the viewer’s skepticism by virtue of the number’s audacity and demonstration of talent and cinematic artistry. And Chazelle tries to dazzle several other times, and usually succeeds. He does it with camera movement, pacing, editing, lighting, and color. He quotes so many classic Hollywood and French musicals that I lost count, or just happily gave up trying and let myself just enjoy the whole experience. There are nods to Singin’ in the Rain, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, many a Vincente Minnelli film, especially An American in Paris (there is lots of “Minnelli red”), The Red Balloon, the non-musicals Rebel Without a Cause and Casablanca, and the entire Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers canon—for starters.
But a viewer doesn’t have to have any background to enjoy the film, as Chazelle has successfully reinvented every element of the musical so that it resonates today; knowing what he might be quoting or paying homage to is simply an added layer of enjoyment. He opens the film with a classic musical approach that brings in singers and dancers over a large physical space—in this case a stretch of Los Angeles road—then approaches most other numbers differently. Lovers express their emotions. An audition that prompts a personal story leads into a song. There are “what if?” reveries. And there are more realistic songs performed as songs within the context of the film by Ryan Gosling, who plays a jazz pianist, and John Legend, who plays a compromised version of himself.
The casting is just about perfect. Gosling and Emma Stone, the female lead, each has a strong screen presence on their own, and an insane chemistry between them. (This is their third film, after the popular Crazy, Stupid, Love and the far-less-popular Gangster Squad.) Their easy-going connection makes every scene believable, every action acceptable.
Neither is what would be called a serious singer or dancer, though they can each carry at tune, and Stone especially has some good moments, especially in “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” near the end of the film. Considering that Gosling was with Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears as part of The Mickey Mouse Club in their youth, I expected a slightly higher level of expertise in song and dance. But their level of talent works here in unexpected ways.
I generally bemoan the use of “actors who sing” making film musicals with challenging or beautiful music. Perhaps the most egregious example in recent years has been Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, which featured two very good actors—Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter—who could carry a tune, but not the beauty of the songs they sang. Having heard the stage version, I was aware of the exquisite tones and harmonies I was missing, even as the performers acted their parts well.
La La Land could have had that discrepancy, except that the film itself is about dreams, and the work in reaching for them. Chazelle has taken the American musical (and its French homages) and reconstituted it as a kind of dream itself that one can only reach for, and quote, and attempt to fit oneself into. Gosling’s and Stone’s characters are striving, and they’re reaching for something, and their falling short of Gene Kelly, Judy Garland or Astaire/Rogers actually works for the film. In their singing and dancing, they are fitting themselves into the dream, and their “good enough” quality adds to their honoring of the dream they’re aspiring to. There were moments where the key Gosling was singing in was too low, but then Stone comes in with a harmony and you realize that anything in a higher key wouldn’t sound right for her. Another thing the “good enough” musical performances do is keep this soaring film grounded in the reality of its characters. Gosling shouldn’t be Howard Keel, and Stone shouldn’t be Kathryn Grayson. Those lovely voices would wrench the viewer right out of the film and the world Chazelle has so meticulously created, and would have snapped the suspension of our disbelief, a situation so challenging to create and sustain.
For Gosling, there has to be a creative tension between how directly the film shows him playing the piano. As a serious pianist myself, I’m often in pain by how older film try to portray piano playing. Classic choices have been not to show the hands at all, and to try and simulate the movement of hands and shoulders from a distance; that’s been done relatively well and unbelievably badly. Or…sometimes the actor learns the notes and plays as close an approximation as possible. That’s the case here, and Gosling deserves all the props for his hard work. But the playing he’s doing is complex jazz, ornamented with difficult runs up and down the keyboard. He does his best, and it’s good, but the decision to show his hands isn’t always successful. Perhaps it takes a pianist to see it, but it’s clear that what he’s seeming to play is often not what we’re hearing. (But he fooled a piano-playing friend of mine, so perhaps I’m in the tiny minority, and after all, who cares?)
Another reason the film and its wildly different musical approaches succeed is that there is a strong central theme about following one’s dreams—a theme handled with respect and an acknowledgement of the struggles and sacrifices that often need to be made. Unlike other films with this theme, however, there is no judgment on those pursuing those dreams. There are real losses when there is a dream to gain, and the film doesn’t back away from this—another element that grounds the film in a certain realism. There is no “we can have it all” that we find in the most naively romantic musicals of the past. Not every relationship lives “happily ever after,” and the film recognizes the reality of that.
Aside from the theme, Chazelle also tends to use a common musical trope, only in a slightly more cynical way. Classic musical numbers have often ended with an interruption (“Shall We Dance?” from The King and I) or a shared experience—often a laugh—that brings us back into the story. Musical numbers here don’t tend to end while in the midst of a flight of fancy (and Chazelle flies pretty high), but in down-to-earth disappointments, frustrating realities, or crude communications. We’re brought right back into the real world of the film and its characters, and the numbers and their dazzle or whimsy are hermetically sealed off, preventing the non-musical world of the film from being compromised.
The songs too are varied and catch the ear. A few will live on beyond the film, and even with the rest, you will leave the theater with one or more of them in your head.
There is much more that could be said and analyzed in La La Land, and I may do that in a future entry. I certainly intend to see the film again and try to see what I know I must have missed the first time around.
The more sociological and political among us might point to this moment as one where our country needs the optimism and joy found in this film. That might be true, and I will leave to others to evaluate it in that context. From a purely filmic viewpoint, it can be said that Chazelle has accomplished a reinvention of the American musical while still paying homage to its past, being simultaneously nostalgic yet without a whiff of staleness. Yes, it’s a good story, told well, with solid acting—all those things. But Chazelle has shown us what can be done with this genre, and how to take nearly every element of a classic musical and make it work in a modern context. Yes, it will be studied for years. But don’t let that bother you. Just go out and enjoy it.