Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play two aspiring artists in modern day Los Angeles -- the former is a jazz pianist who tickles the ivories to Charlie Parker while Stone is Mia, an out-of-luck actress who is still in audition limbo after dropping out of college and moving to California six years ago.
It's not a new story, especially this year, where other films such as Hail Caesar, Cafe Society, and Neon Demon have grappled (some more successfully than others) to capture artistic ennui or Hollywood's intrinsic ambivalence. However, La La Land does it in a spectacular fashion and it's even more impressive that it's on the vehicle of a musical.
Why do so many of us struggle to connect with the musical genre? Often it's the incongruency and the contrivance of it all -- if not handled well, it's jarring to see characters burst into song and dance, and it doesn't make sense to witness a woman burst into operatic song when stabbed in the back. Even watching Moana earlier this week proves that the tried formula of a Disney musical doesn't always work.
La La Land works because above all, it's emotionally honest. We're willing to go with the characters when they slip from conversation to song because of the sheer joie de vivre of it all. It makes as much sense as a skip in your step when you fall in love, or a lingering hand on a melancholy strain when you're heartbroken. Director Damien Chazelle has somehow captured an authentic earnestness that works better than Tom Hooper's close shots in Les Miserables.
Everything in La La Land is in service to the overall tone. Chazelle worked closely with cinematographer Linus Sandgren and colorist Natash Leonnet to create a technicolor dream. Each color, each scene, each lighting choice looks as delicious as a Willy Wonka candy coat, and I've never seen a film I want to live in more. A 2.55 Cinemascope form to hearken back to 1950s films, an emphasis on anamorphic lenses as an homage to Old Hollywood, and a concentrated effort to create colors on sets rather than edit post-film. Chazelle even had Panavision make two new lenses for the film. The push away from digital is a deliberate move to make the film look more magical rather than realistic. For example, the old gas lamps that light romantic night scenes of Stone and Gosling are a yearning back to old cinema Hollywood, before the advent of non-tungsten artificial lighting that began replacing the sodium ones.
And yet, La La Land is beautiful because it captures both the old movie magic along with modern Los Angeles. Gosling and Stone bring back to life the old hollywood couples that used to throng old movies. La La Land is a true love letter to the movie industry of today -- something that acknowledges what we love about LA and exactly what we hate about it too. There's the push and pull of the old classic Hollywood at odds with the always changing and always renovating city. What makes the city so beautiful is its contrast. That magic hour isn't contrived -- that purplish sky is what LA is. And yet, so are the white hot traffic beats, the unctuous oleaginous social climbers, and that displacement from your dreams and your future.
When watching how Chazelle handles the camera, you can't help but marvel that this is truly the magnificent extent to what a musical can do when you have a competent director behind the lens. The musical numbers, although filmed head-to-toe, aren't merely set inanimately to showcase technique. Instead, the camera is a dancer -- moving agilely through space, allowing the audience to feel the energy and joy of the music. There's a rhythm to the camera movement which is truly emotional -- whether it's whirling through the streets of LA, whether it's a slow zoom-in on a spotlight, or even in the sole moment where Chazelle uses handheld.
The music, by Justin Hurwitz, again serves the tone of the film. As memorable and thoughtfully composed as it is, it only works because of its truthfulness to the moment. Musical numbers in movies can only work if they're true to their characters, and if they're emotionally authentic to the audience's lives. The happy songs are touched with a tinge of melancholy...and the sad songs have a hint of hope as well. It's the musical as well as visual complexity that breathes nuanced life.
These are really only technicalities to the dazzling display La La Land is. There are influences as distinct and varied as West Side Story and Edward Hopper paintings. But Chazelle's sophomore outing is as different from his tensely fraught Whiplash as it is emotionally fulfilling. There's still a longing, fear, and wistfulness of what we cannot know and what we may never achieve -- are we good enough and have we risked enough for what we dreamed?
Thankfully, La La Land fulfills a resounding positive beyond our wildest hopes to both of those questions.