Review: 'La La Land' Brings Back the Movie Musical

Wesley Emblidge ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Executive Editor
“It feels too nostalgic,” worries Mia (Emma Stone). A struggling actress in Los Angeles, she decides to write a one woman-play for herself after tiring of failed auditions. Yet she’s concerned people won’t like what she’s written because of how it romanticizes the past. For those people, her jazz pianist boyfriend, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), has two words: “F*** ‘em.”
These are our leads in the new musical from writer/director Damien Chazelle, who broke out in 2014 with his indie hit Whiplash. While that film was all about an instructor that abuses the ambitions of his students, La La Land is about the way those same ambitions of artists hurt their personal relationships. It’s also dealing with that idea of nostalgia, and how to keep older art forms alive without trivializing them. All this, and a number of show-stopping song and dance numbers that put the few recent studio musicals to shame.

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land. Photo Credit: Lionsgate.
From the opening frames, the film is paying homage to the musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood, with a large opening title stating that the film is in the old widescreen format of “Cinemascope.” We’re then treated to a large-scale song on an LA freeway all filmed in one long take, sending us into a story that is full of musings on the film industry, how people listen to jazz, and how art evolves over time. It’s a take on the classical MGM musical that grounds itself in a very modern LA, one that’s nothing like that of Singin’ in the Rain (a more comparable musical classic would be Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).
What’s important though is that the film isn’t consumed by that nostalgia the way something like the Netflix series Stranger Things is, but instead puts its characters and their relationship at the forefront. Since we rarely see actors teaming up in movies repeatedly anymore, Gosling and Stone are maybe the closest we have to a Fred and Ginger for this generation, with the two stars showcasing their electric chemistry first in Crazy, Stupid, Love., then the less successful Gangster Squad, and now La La Land. Individually, Gosling is good in a role that doesn’t feel like much of a stretch for him, but Stone is the real standout. Part of this is simply that she’s given more emotional scenes, with Gosling at times made to be a gender-swapped “manic pixie dream girl.”
Really, La La Land is better as a romance and a story of struggling artists than it is as a musical. Justin Hurwitz’s songs (with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) work in the moment, but none are all that memorable, save the main one “City of Stars.”
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land. Photo Credit: Lionsgate.
For Chazelle, La La Land is in some ways his attempt to make a bigger version of his film debut, the lovely Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. The director shot that microbudget musical on 16mm in part as his thesis film at Harvard, and like La La Land, it’s a nostalgic throwback with a conflicted romance at the center. With the clout from Whiplash, Chazelle had a lot more money to work with this time around, so we’re treated to some exceptional (and expensive) musical numbers, like the aforementioned freeway opener. Other highlights include a tap number that takes place on a hill overlooking the city, and the closing number that goes all in on the nostalgia with painted backdrops and theatrical sets.
Chazelle shoots many of the numbers, including that first one, using long takes, a technique that can feel somewhat tedious after filmmakers like Alejandro González Iñárritu have used them to death. However, in this context the long takes make a lot of sense. Rather than hide the skill of his performers through hyperkinetic editing like so many other modern musicals, Chazelle uses the long takes to let us see the whole dance sequence play out. La La Land confirms that Chazelle isn’t a one-hit wonder, but that he’ll have a long and prosperous career past this with all kinds of movies that will stand out from what his contemporaries are making.
Overall Grade: B+
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