La La Land-Cynicism & Joy in the Modern Musical

Despite reports to the contrary, the cinematic musical never truly died. Even looking past the obvious examples of the yearly Disney instalment, we can see examples from recent years like Les Misérables, Rock of Ages, Annie, and of course, Mamma Mia. Cinema will always have an unbreakable bond with the love of song and dance, but there really hasn’t been an attempt to bring back the classic style of the musical, back from the golden-age of Hollywood, since Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, all the way back in 1996. Maybe, twenty years later, we have finally been handed another genuine attempt to bring back the ‘joie de vivre’ of those classic movies, with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. A strikingly modern homage to the golden-age, this is a staggering re-evaluation of the musical, a bold and grounded attempt to bring the genre back into its original style. It perhaps doesn’t get every beat completely perfect, but its ambition and audacity is totally striking, resulting in a cinematic experience that, by today’s standards, is totally unique. It is a homage that feels grounded in its influences, while also totally radical and innovative at the same time.

The narrative follows the central partnership of Mia and Sebastian, played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, who strive to succeed in the cut-throat industries of Los Angeles. Mia is an aspiring actress who is repeatedly demoralised by typically nasty and disengaged interviewees. She becomes involved with Sebastian, a struggling and lonely musician who is convinced he is going to “save Jazz”, but repeatedly has to consider abandoning his traditionalist dreams in order to fit into the modern scene. There is a terrific scene where Mia goes to see Sebastian’s new Jazz band play in a packed arena, only to discover this new band are a strange mix of old Jazz sounds and new electro-pop, which is what Sebastian has been trying to escape from the entire time. As the music plays and Mia gets pushed away by the crowd, Sebastian has a strange smile on his face, suggesting he has sold-out on his dreams and isn’t even aware of it. The protagonists of La La Land are doomed to constantly have to choose between two worlds, and, in the movie’s most traditional moral, the search for fame is shown to come at a price. Still, there is a magic to be found all the way through the narrative, even in the most tragic of moments; there is a late fantasy sequence that is inventive, surreal and astoundingly beautiful, but the implications and emotions it raises are heartbreaking. La La Land is constantly torn between hope and cynicism, and admirably uses the format of the musical to tackle modern realism.

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This admirable blend of bounciness and tragedy isn’t always to the film’s credit. There is a certain feeling of conflict and disarray in the attempt to add such pessimism into the musical, as if these two worlds can’t meet without complications. Sometimes, this conflict works terrifically, especially in the audition scenes of Emma Stone, where the camera captures lingering heartbreak in her eyes with every failure. Where it works less well is in the latter stages of the film, where although there are musical interludes through instruments, the earlier songs vanish for a time, as the tone of the narrative evokes more serious implications. Although the inventiveness of the film’s final sequence performs the perfect combination of joy and heartbreak, there are moments where the difficulty of this task strains cracks at the seams.

Despite the occasional confusion over its conflicting themes and style, and even though the film can’t quite sustain the lofty standards it sets itself throughout the entire running, La La Land is perhaps the best example of ‘movie magic’ I have seen in years and years of cinema viewing. The opening number, of aspiring talent jumping up and singing in the middle of a traffic jam, is a miraculous opening: the camera sways and bounces through a (supposedly) single-take, all while colour and joy explode out of the screen towards you. What a fabulous opening scene, an innovative and beautifully choreographed sequence that leaves the rest of the film trying to keep up to its pace. Other highlights involve the equally bouncy number ‘Someone in the Crowd’ (which involves a fabulous circular shot from the middle of a swimming pool), and the toe-tapping ‘A Lovely Night’, which invokes familiar memories of Singin’ in the Rain, where Gosling and Stone dance and tap around the empty streets of Los Angeles. There is repeated innovation and bravery here, unashamed attachment to the magic moments of the classics. Thanks to the screenplay and the songs, this feels like a worthy homage and a potential classic in its own right, a film that cannot exist without its influences but reaches for the stars in trying to eclipse them.

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What a strange, beautiful film La La Land proves to be. There is little you can say about it that hasn’t already been said, but every piece of praise and acclaim is worth repeating. It flows and behaves like a dream, where reality and fantasy explode in a singular example of magic in modern cinema. It captures the imagination and admirably attempts to introduce the golden-age of Hollywood musicals to a new age, all straight from the directing and writing talents of the 32 year old Damien Chazelle. While his earlier hit Whiplash from 2014 was a punchy and violent exploration of musical obsession, this is a grand and well-meaning to homage a genre Chazelle clearly has a great love for, a love-letter that is as ambitious as it is genuine. For a film this far-reaching and affecting to have come from such a young director (this is only his third film) is absolutely staggering, and is hopefully an exciting indication of what we have to come. La La Land is a remarkable achievement, a unique addition to the modern world of cinema, and all the awards and acclaim it has and will receive are totally deserved. It was an absolute thrill to watch and will be a delight to revisit; cinema of the most essential and innovative kind.

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