Dec 19, 2016

La La Land

This is going to sound completely vacuous, but watching Ryan Gosling hoof and sing and fall in love and play the ivories with passion made me forget about all the problems in the world. In fact, it made me think: Aleppo and Trump are happening, but here is Ryan Gosling giving my tired old heart sheer undiluted joy. Isn't this what movies and movie stars are for?
Director Damian Chazelle (Whiplash) is a clever filmmaker, and he seems to have opted for deliberate artificiality in order to make La La Land, a musical movie, work. And work it does, emotionally. The story is about two creative people, Mia, an aspiring actress and Sebastian, an anachronistic jazz pianist, who struggle to hang on to their dignity in L.A., a sunny but brutal town when it comes to making dreams come true.
But La La Land works mainly because Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are wonderful and delightful. They have a lovely chemistry together and are excellent apart. They are not belters or showbiz kind of performers so their naturality as they sing and dance is very affecting. They portray their characters with grit, wit and charm.
Chazelle is good with perky dialogue as well as with visual gags. The opening scene is a nod to the famous traffic jam that opens Fellini's 81/2, but also a sweet joke on the legendary gridlock of Los Angeles. The different music coming out of people's cars sets up the stage for the musical we're about to watch.  Being as they are, stuck in traffic, Mia and Sebastian do not meet cute; they meet with road rage. The spirit of this film is at once romantic and nostalgic for the effortless romance of the past, and also a little bit jaded and realistic about life. Billy Wilder would be proud.
La La Land made me think of the Great Depression and how those Busby Berkeley musicals and other light fare spirited people away from their misery (if they could afford a movie ticket). This charming film does that. It sucks you into the story of the artistic and romantic struggles of two winning losers, with pep and whimsy but without sentimentality, indeed with a clear-eyed realistic assessment of love, and a ballsy dream sequence that goes for the bittersweet because life isn't perfect.
The music by Justin Hurwitz is nice and serviceable, but not particularly memorable (the uninteresting leit motif repeated over and over is borderline annoying). Chazelle uses normal singing voices, instead of Ethel Merman-like singers, and the effect is a little shaggy, but heartfelt. Stone and Gosling are refreshingly natural singers and dancers, a much-needed antidote to the horrifying belting currently in vogue in films like Frozen. They have class.
Although the color scheme aims to evoke the technicolor musicals of yore I thought the film could look better. However, coming up with an original musical film in this day and age is a radical notion, and this fresh take on love and creative struggle is a lovely and timely gift from a talented filmmaker.

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