Unlike other genres of film, pulling off a classic musical means simply abiding by one simple formula:
Great Songs + Great Dance + Dynamic Characters
A Healthy Dose Of Self-Awareness
Pull that off (no easy feat in itself), add some camp and a level of optimism about the world that’s tantamount to denialism and Bob’s Your Uncle: you’ve landed yourself a Singing In The Rain. Despite being touted as revivalism of the MGM classics, and criticised in places for being a rote application of said formula, the stunning La La Land in fact thrives and lives in three key addendums to the blueprint:
a) The Camera Dances Too
The death of musicals has long been greatly exaggerated. TV sitcoms have been keeping the genre alive for decades (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The Simpsons both aired one this month alone),films such as Black Swan invoked the genre without encompassing it, while just months before La La Land, one of the best films of 2016 – Spike Lee’s Chicago-set musical Chiraq – opened its doors. La La Land is the passion project of director Damien Chazelle, a love letter to the post-war musical on which he was raised, making it actually notable for being the most “musical” musical of recent years. Fittingly, there can be no overstating the extent to which the design team behind this film rose to the occasion. It perhaps takes longer to replicate the mood of iconic filmmaking than to craft something novel, and yet from scenes of dancing along empty boulevards, walking along neon-lit pavements and a vigourous climatic montage which sees the camera shooting between watercolour and model cityscapes and pristine white sound stages: almost every frame is picture perfect, evocative of films many of us haven’t even seen.
Not that novelty is in short supply either. Despite the film’s inherent conservatism, it could not have been made in the era it aims to evoke. From the opening showstopper “Another Day Of Sun”, where the camera circles an entire highway of jammed cars, to the thrilling “Someone In The Crowd” which glides through a pool party frozen in time, and then into the water itself. La La Land is so joyous not simply because of the energy of the routines on screen but a palpable sense of artistic liberation which spurns from the discovery of a genre where the rules are almost none.
b) It’s Film, Not Theatre
I don’t really like musicals. With the exception of a few greats, they’re often ultimately overwrought, saccharine, and have a vast flaw built into their very DNA: the moment of transition, between dialogue and song, is often so contrived the whole thing goes up in flames. Lead actor Ryan Gosling has stated that La La Land was, by design, a musical for people who don’t like musicals, and so, with that in mind, from scene to song this film absolutely nails the take off. Save for the first two set pieces, the movie strikes a perfect balance between grounded performances and showstoppers which, once literally, shoot for the stars. It still boggles me how Chazelle and co. transformed musicals’ greatest folly into one of this one’s most charming assets, but it’s clear Gosling and Emma Stone are key.
They are the lead actors who were always going to be either what ensured La La Land was a success or, were it to be a flop, at least be it’s saving grace. They have turned out some of the most consistently captivating and nuanced English-language performances of the past several years, and placing them together for the third time was a sure-fire bet. Indeed throughout the film they are equal parts charming and fragile, and La La Land thrives, not only because of how well they perform the set pieces cinemagoers brought their ticket for, but because of how they turn the scenes in-between into some of the most human drama of the year. One scene – their first fight as lovers – is absolutely devastating thanks to the observation that arguments hurt not because of the shouting, but in the silence once it’s over. As characters Sebastian and Mia are essentially just personifications of dreams and ambitions, but the two actors who play them turn them into something enthralling.
c) It’s Also About Musicals
While self awareness has always played a key part in toning down the sweetness of classical musicals, Chazelle makes it integral to La La Land’s very being. The signs were there: Sebastian’s commitment to the free jazz of old is a derided by John Legend’s Keith as being the very traditionalism which keeps the forward-looking genre stuck in the past. (Some have determined Gosling’s Sebastian as being indicative of an underlying racism in the movie, where a white man is positioned as the saviour of black jazz music, but how a person of any colour passionate about an older style of music while honouring the greats of the 50’s and 60’s is racist is beyond me). Indeed woven into the very fabric of musicals is a great optimism. Singin In The Rain told the story of an industry in decline, but did it with a swing in it’s step. However by sweeping up it’s lead characters in a whirl of song and dance, and then bringing them crashing down to earth in a near-40-minute section in which almost nothing in performed, Chazelle makes the film harshly aware that the kind of romance sung about in the great’s this film worships is almost nothing like real life, and in it’s heartbreaking final moments he turns that knowledge into the sting in his masterpiece’s tail.
For all the criticisms of the film’s conservatism then, La La Land is distinctly aware that while it celebrates a certain genre; the current cinematic landscape, and indeed the real world, looks little like The Wizard of Oz anymore. As a musical though, and through it’s sheer passion and strength of invention, it’s immediately obvious why the film is sweeping up awards all around the world: it’s the sort that will make even the most hardened viewer want to pick up a camera and make a film this minute. Musicals reveal more than most that the cinematic balance is a hard one to maintain: the beauty of La La Land is that it makes it all look so easy.
Words by Liam Inscoe – Jones