The Venice Film Festival opened with a bang – or rather a shimmy and a song – here in a sunny Lido with the world premiere of La La Land, as Damien Chazelle’s sophomore feature lived up to all of its pre-festival buzz (and augured well for a continuing festival streak) . From the long tracking shot that envelops an ensemble dance number that erupts from a traffic jam on a freeway ramp (how has no one ever filmed this before?!), to its fanciful duel ending, the film is both an homage and a fresh updating of the Hollywood musical.
Unabashedly sentimental in the best possible way La La Land revels in the idioms of the genre with a conviction that ultimately is its strongest asset – not to take anything away from the endearing lead performances by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. The latter plays Sebastian, a struggling jazz pianist whose passion for the music he loves is as strong as his obsession fro preserving the integrity of the genre. Stone is Mia, a modern ingénue who has come from the proverbial Podunk town (ok, Boulder City, Nevada) to follow her own passion, presently taking the form of an interminable string of dead-end auditions.
Their first casual encounters are, let’s just say, less than auspicious, but just like in those old Hollywood movies Mia loves, the sparks that fly between these two are half the fun while we wait for the romance. “You say ‘romantic’ as if it was a bad word” Sebastian tells his sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) who is concerned about his lack of practical sense (and gainful employment). And that in a nutshell seems to be Chazelles’ guiding principle here.
“The thing I love about musicals is that everything is possible,” the director was recently quoted as saying. “You can combine all the arts – music, dance, painting, theater – to collectively produce an emotion that can’t be conveyed by words”. And that may be the best definition of a quintessentially Hollywood form of expression that is the musical. The enduring form into which La La Land breathes new and exciting air even as it pays homage to its devices and, yes clichés, in the most loving possible way.
The inclusion of painting in Chazelle's definition is particularly apropos here given the beautiful production design and art direction (by David Wasco and Austin Gorg, respectively), worthy of a Gene Kelly film and the way Linus Sandgren’s cinematography envelopes the Los Angeles locations (the city a character in this film as is proper for a film largely about Hollywood). Then there is the music of course, by Justin Hurwitz with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, including the wonderfully wistful City of Stars. The musical setting also makes John Legend’s supporting role particularly apropos.
La La Land is a love letter to jazz, to movies and to the creative spirit (as well as to LA). And to the art form of Stanley Donen and Busby Berkeley. A risky enterprise, admittedly, as some critics will be sure to dwell on comparisons between Gosling’s and Stone’s more than adequate music and dance chops and the giants of the past. But that is really beside the point here. Chazelle’s greatest achievement is telling the oldest story in the book in a manner that is both fresh, evocative, “experimental” and yes, unabashedly romantic; in other words invoking the best spirit of musicals past.
Two years ago another film set in the performing milieu made a splash here. Birdman was a musical of sorts – if nothing else for the recurring solo drumming performance (by Antonio Sanchez) which served as its score. Of course Chazelle knows a thing or two about the rhythm section, as all who have seen his Whiplash can attest. That Sundance sensation was all about drums and the passion, obsession and pain that sometimes accompany music.
In its own way La La Land deals with some of those themes. Beneath the music and dance numbers and dream-like romance there also runs a narrative thread about purity and expression the compromises artists are inevitably faced with. With rejection and stage fright: artistic integrity and the sacrifices that it requires.
But more than anything La La Land employs to maximum effect the fiction and magical artifice that are musicals – and really the best cinema.