True confession time: I love going to the movies, but the one genre I generally can’t get into is the musical. That’s more Ryan’s thing than mine. I can overlook it for a cartoon, but not always for a flesh-and-blood performance.
But La La Land blew me away.
I think part of why I generally dislike the musical but found this one working is that, on a basic level, there’s a bit of artificiality to the musical. I guess my own personal suspension of disbelief can accept aliens, superpowers, and superpowered aliens, but draws the line at mobs of people suddenly breaking into spontaneous song and dance with what is presumably a song they are all making up on the spot.
However, writer/director Damien Chazelle seemed to recognize this with a movie that embraces the artificial nature of the narrative. Chazelle’s camera moves and sweeps along in a Los Angeles where title cards are necessary to tell the audience what season it is because it otherwise always looks sunny, warm, and pleasant even in the midst of Christmas. If you’re going to have spontaneous musical numbers, then make ’em a bit crazy and include some zero gravity dancing in a planetarium.
The story follows aspiring jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) as they meet, squabble a little, and fall in love as their lives and careers take them all over the place. There are other characters in the movie, but none of them matter in the grand scheme of things. The central question seems to be whether or not these two can both have their dreams and each other. Chazelle also seems to know when to not have them singing. When the two are at their lowest, in a section titled “Fall,” it’s worth noting that neither of them sing a note until the end of the segment. When the music dies, so does the general giddiness of being in love in a movie.
In fact, appropriately enough, this may be a musical, but it’s a very cinematic musical. Not quite an old-fashioned one (as seen in the throwback scenes from the Coen Brothers’ early 2016 film Hail, Caesar!), but it’s not done in a theatrical style like Les Miserables or even in the surreal weirdness of a Moulin Rouge. Instead, it’s clearly an original musical made for the movies, in a story that perhaps could only be told right on the silver screen.
Now, as noted, I don’t generally like musicals, but this one was fine enough. What happened was I got to the end, and the last scene, an extended dream sequence for lack of a better description, completely changed my mind with a surprisingly bittersweet ending, emphasis on the sweet. I expect at least some nominations for this movie. The Oscars love movies that either callback to the golden age of cinema or talk about the power of motion pictures, and La La Land seems to do both. 10 out of 10 gridlock dance numbers.