‘La La Land’ (2016) | Austin Film Festival Review

Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort are among cinephiles’ favorite screen musicals, and I have mixed feelings about them. Cherbourg recitative to me can sometimes feel uninspired, particularly at points where the songs are not terribly lyrically complex. Rochefort fixes those issues but occasionally loses steam when the more ambitious musical staging is a bit of a reach for some of the performers not overly familiar with this style of performance. Both, however, do manage to transcend those misgivings into something great. Damien Chazelle has decided to essentially shove those two movies together, with a dash of Vincente Minnelli, to create La La Land, an old school musical of the highest order. The result manages to shed my complaints of those films and create something truly magical, one of those transportive film experiences you hear about far more than actually have.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling continue their quick-witted courtships from Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad as a struggling actress and jazz pianist/aspiring club owner. As one cop said, it’s the same old story. Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy, boy forgets girl, boy remembers girl, girl dies in a tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day. Okay, maybe Frank Drebin went a little too far there, but La La Land is a simple romance between artists. Chazelle smartly keeps it simple in order for his whizzing camera and composer Justin Hurwitz‘s lively jazz score to turn this tale as old as time into something larger than life. And when the opening of the film is dozens of dancers taking over a traffic-jammed freeway in an elaborately choreographed number all done in a single take, larger than life is really all you can describe it as.

It’s staging like that which makes La La Land soar. Each set piece is complicated and done with incredibly long takes. Lighting cues are bold and theatrical, and the colors, be it the primary colored suits and sundresses or painted walls, are gorgeous. This is important because, surprisingly, a lot of the music in this musical does not actually involve singing. Yes, there’s a good half dozen or so numbers where Gosling and Stone warble a bit, the latter much more successfully than the former, but it’s in the conception of the numbers where they, ironically, sing. When our pair of lovers glide through Griffith Observatory in the night, you feel a rush of excitement wash over you in the way only movies can do.

La La Land

Now, I will say La La Land isn’t perfect. I do have some complaints with the songs Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul composed for the film. Well, not necessarily the ones they wrote for the film but the ones not written for the film. As I said before there a good set of instrumental numbers, which I have no issue with, but there are quite long stretches where there’s no music at all. Some scenes cry out for a musical number, be it an introspective solo or even a confrontation duet, that don’t happen. What happens in those scenes isn’t necessarily bad, but in a musical, you want, well, music.

In their third film together, you expect Stone and Gosling to have great chemistry, and this is a film finally deserving of their spark. Emma Stone, in particular, finally is given the movie star role she deserves and delivers everything she has. Her final solo is stirring, a song she can deliver with everything she’s got an isn’t held back by the flighty jazz the rest of the score is built around. I have always vastly preferred Gosling in charming mode over serious mode, and I don’t think he’s been better than he is here. My only disappointment with casting is J.K. Simmons, reuniting with his Whiplash director. He isn’t bad. Don’t misunderstand me. Simmons is incapable of being bad. I just wish he was in more than one scene and had a song to sing, as he is a great singer (the 1992 revival cast recording of Guys and Dolls on which he is featured is on heavy rotation with me).

We don’t get old fashioned screen musicals anymore. Modern musicals are pastiches of this style, counterculture pieces, or prestige pictures. La La Land is Golden Age Hollywood romanticism without a hint of irony. It is unashamedly nostalgic, yet it never feels pandering. Seeing this not only in a theater but in one that’s over 100 years old, as I did, makes me remember why I love movies, why I love musicals, and why I thought I wanted to start a website like this in the first place. Yes, I have minor quibbles with it, but sometimes you fall head over heels for something that you barely see the slight blemishes.

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