La La Land, a Modern Movie Musical -- or Not

It starts with a green light in the room. The feeling, or really, for any experienced moviegoer, the certainty that these two, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, are not going to be together much longer. After a near-painfully protracted meet-cute spanning a third of the film, and a giddy montage showing just how happy this aspiring actress and jazz pianist are together, we see Mia (Stone), come home to Sebastian (Gosling) playing the piano in an eerie, cold, green light, reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz.  He starts to play a longing tune, what has come to be one of “their” songs. She smiles, the green shades draining the color from her light purple dress, and starts to sing. The song is warm, but the light is cold, and we know—it’s about that time in the film for these two to separate, only to come together at the end. Or will they? That feeling, that loss will not only be threatened but truly occur, is the heart of La La Land. For how do we appreciate a memory unless it is in the past?

Yeah, this doesn't look ominous at all.

Yeah, this doesn't look ominous at all.

La La Land, an attempt to revitalize the movie musical by Damien Chazelle, is in reality more of a drama. It follows Mia and Sebastian as they each pursue a career in the arts, as well as a relationship with each other—Mia wants to be an actress, Sebastian wants to own his own jazz club. Their story is a grounded one, glittered up with musical numbers and in-your-face style. La La Land utilizes these joyous musical numbers and an earnest nostalgia for Hollywood as a smokescreen, obscuring the far more poignant, melancholy story of dreams, love, and how the two do (or don’t) work together. Perhaps that is why most of the musical numbers feel so insincere, despite the confidence in their execution? Rather than working with the story, the numbers often feel as if they are working on top of it, much like a big band trying to play on top of a rendition of Twelfth Night.

Another reason may be, unfortunately, the same reason that makes the non-musical dramatic elements work so well—the actors. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are gifted thespians, and do well by the material here. Gosling in particular seems as if he has finally coughed out the gravel in his throat from his time shooting Drive and become more willing to lend his naturally nasally voice to comedy, for which it is well-suited. (Between this and The Nice Guys, there has been a welcome goofy Gosling renaissance.) Stone, as always, excels, simultaneously endearing and sharply cutting as Mia. What they do not excel at as much is singing, or dancing, or singing and dancing at the same time—safe to say, a fair portion of the film.

Chazelle is not shy in making La La Land an homage to classic American movie musicals, but such an homage invites comparison, and the comparison is unfavorable. The dancing and choreography, particularly, is a little lackluster. Where the fault lies, who knows—actors who cannot dance as well as Fred and Ginger (understandable), choreographers not timing the music properly to the dance, a result of the music coming in so late in production? The camera work is splendid and frenetic in La La Land, but one can almost see this as a response to the dancing on screen. When the actors cannot dance as well as Chazelle might like, the camera becomes a dancer itself—and it definitely gets a workout in certain scenes. On the other hand, in the songs, the less-professional singing lends the film an almost welcome earnest, scrappy quality, as if everyday people are singing their hearts out, not paid actors.

So, La La Land may not entirely work as a movie musical, but it certainly works as a movie. Gosling and Stone have great onscreen chemistry, and the two are given some of their best roles here, as they both come off as generally likeable people with undeniable prick-ish streaks. Every major scene that needs to land does land, and by the end of the film, we are deeply invested in Mia and Sebastian’s story. However, given the uncertain nature of their relationship, and how ambiguous the film has been up to that point, it is easy to imagine it all falling apart horribly, as the writers could flinch, relent, find a way for them to get together for an easy happy ending. But it does not, and they do not. What La La Land should be commended for, above all else, is finding a bittersweet tone and sticking to it. That may sound like a simple achievement, or damning with faint praise, but in the mainstream film of today it is sadly notable.

This is a love letter to Los Angeles, so there are very bright, cheerful hues, but the art direction of La La Land thrives a few shades darker; it lives at sunset, at night but with bright lights, when there is romance in the air but the mood is definitely a little cooler, a little more subdued than one might usually expect from this sort of picture. The colors are often in-between things, in the same way that the mood is often in-between joy and loss.

Still, as much as I personally enjoyed the tone, one has to wonder if that “in-between-ness” may be a weakness, a certain indecision on Chazelle’s part. He has often billed La La Land as a “modern movie musical,” and a more grounded, melancholy tone could be seen as a way to evolve that genre, but it could also be seen as taking away from, rather than adding to the space. There may be a version of the film that works entirely without music, and one that works with a much greater focus on it. Similar to Joe Wright’s Hanna, and the modern fairy-tale approach, La La Land may be trying to have its cake and eat it too by having a grounded story paired with soaring musical numbers. Either way, La La Land is a unique creation (or is it simply of an ilk we have not seen for a spell?), one that works by making good on its own dramatic promises, if not its proficiency as a musical.