‘La La Land’ (2016) reinvigorates the movie musical

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 9/24/16 12:58pm

Call me a heretic if you want, but I am not prone to loving musicals. Which is not to say that there aren’t many excellent examples of the genre, there just happen to be many more examples that I find unappealing and tiresome. But as I left Spaulding Auditorium Saturday night, having just seen Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” (2016), I felt something I had not felt in some time: the need to rejoice! To rejoice at the fact that there was a director working today who had the guts to make a movie that is so shamelessly nostalgic and positive in spirit. This may only be Chazelle’s, who directed “Whiplash” (2014), third film, but it is so confident that I have no doubt he will become one of the defining filmmaking voices of this generation.

“La La Land” chronicles the love affair of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and struggling Jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). As far as a plot synopsis goes, that’s all you need to know. “La La Land” relies on its simplicity. Its story is a mere framework for its affectionate tribute to movie musicals from a time long gone by. The entire film feels as though it might be a relic from the ’60s, a relic with admittedly vastly improved image and sound quality. This is not to say that I long for some “Golden Age” of movies that can never be recaptured. I simply have a soft spot for older films, and I can’t help but admire a filmmaker who tries to breathe new life into a film genre that many (myself included) thought had long since died.

As with “Whiplash,” Chazelle shows an innate aptitude for the musical elements of his story. He understands how to link music and moving images in a way that makes them feel inseparable. All of the songs are catchy, and I feel confident that “City of Stars” will eventually find its place in the pantheon of great musical numbers. Gosling and Stone are both fantastic and, most importantly, genuine. Apparently both trained extensively for this film, and the effort really showed. Chazelle has a tendency to use extensive long takes during the musical numbers, which feels unconventional at first. But this technique assures the audience soundly that nothing here is being hidden with flashy editing or distracting camerawork. Rather, we get to see all of the actors’ hard work pay off as the camera focuses on them unbroken second after unbroken second. Some actors are award-worthy until you ask them to perform in a musical (see almost the entire cast of “Mamma Mia!” (2008) for a prime example). But Gosling and Stone look effortless on screen, and they make the acting, singing and dancing seemingly indistinguishable. When they aren’t singing we can still feel the song in their hearts, and when they are singing we can still see the deepest of emotions played out across their faces.

The filmmaking itself is magical, leaping into flights of fantasy with a sort of reckless abandon which is rare in a film era so focused on hyperrealism. And while the story here may be simple, the message is less so. “La La Land” is certainly in love with old musicals but, like all great art, it adds to the cinematic conversation. The film divides itself into two distinct halves, and while the first half is very much an homage to old Hollywood musicals, the second half maturely comments on them, making this film accessible to a more cynical modern audience without losing any of its charm. Before the film was shown in Spaulding on Saturday, the audience was informed that Chazelle had said that he tries not to stay in a permanent state of celebration. And indeed, “La La Land” also does not stay in a permanent state of celebration; its second half is considerably less jubilant. But the tone shift never feels like a cheat because every moment rings out with a real sense of emotional honesty. The melancholy second half allows Chazelle to both honor and subvert the clichés of the classic Hollywood musical and create a story which will endure.

If I had to point out one flaw — though I’d almost prefer not to — it is that the transition between the two halves of the film is a little rocky. As the first half was wrapping up, I was so euphoric that I really didn’t want the film to keep going. And it did take me a second to adjust to the fact that there was at least 30 to 40 minutes left in the movie. But once I realized where Chazelle was going with the second half, I was right back on board.

I confess that this review is intentionally vague because I don’t want to spoil the experience of seeing this movie for any of you. 2016 has admittedly been something of a cinematic dumpster fire, but I implore you to see this film because it truly is something unexpected and special. I mentioned at the top of this review that I am not prone to love movie musicals. I loved “La La Land.”

This showing of “La La Land” was part of this week’s Hopkins Center initiative “Telluride at Dartmouth,” which premieres six films direct from the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. Tonight, “Things to Come” will be showing at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. in Spaulding Auditorium.

Rating: 9/10