Breaking into song to express emotions too powerful for spoken words doesn’t resonate the way it did in the days of Gene Kelly and Bing Crosby.
A big green Hulk can thrash alien invaders all over the New York City skyline to the pleasure of millions, but a man busting out an impeccably choreographed dance number to a sweet melody is something audiences just can’t fathom anymore. For that reason, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a contemporary ode to the heyday of the Hollywood movie musical, will likely win or lose its audience by the end of its rousing, if not borderline campy opening number.
Set in the thick gridlock of Los Angeles freeway traffic, the number unfolds as people take to the pavement and car rooftops to sing and dance about the irresistible pull of Hollywood and the slim chance of stardom.
Dressed in bright colours and big smiles – despite most likely working minimum wage jobs between failed auditions – the jaunty denizens in Another Day In The Sun are living out the fantasy of millions in Hollywood. It’s the epitome of the exuberance of the classic Hollywood musical number.
But La La Land, for all its hundreds of extras and wide shots of the City of Angels, is a two-hander focusing on just two of those dreamers: Mia (a career-best Emma Stone), an actress struggling to stand out; and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a charismatic, but out-of-work jazz pianist hoping to single-handedly save the art form.
Like any good Hollywood musical, the creative types are initially at odds before falling head first into a romance under the city of stars and on studio backlots. It’s been 65 years since Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds did the same in Singin’ In The Rain, a hallmark of the genre.
While Chazelle, who broke out with 2014’s Whiplash, reaps inspiration from that film and the like, his addition never comes off as pandering or parody.
He shoots Los Angeles and his subjects with an adoring lens and an attention to detail that’s masterful and technically astounding. Coupled with a soaring score by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics by Pasek and Paul, the film is a dream for the musical genre.
But it also makes a concerted effort to change the age-old tune, so to speak.
Dance and musical numbers performed by Gosling and Stone are scaled back to accommodate their skill level, though the film works because it was written for actors who are actors first.
Long stretches pass with no musical numbers, and Stone’s tremendous third act stream-of-consciousness performance, Audition (The Fools Who Dream) would be too avant grade for any classic musical. That scene, alone is likely to clinch Stone an Oscar nomination and possibly the prize.
Chazelle’s formulaic breaks pay homage to the past, while intentionally crafting a film that’s representative of the future potential of musicals in which he hopes to inspire growth.
La La Land is foolish enough to dream of a bright future for the movie musical, while never forgetting where it’s been. – Star-News/Tribune News Service/Hunter Ingram