Ah, the movie musical. When done right, it can create more magic upon the silver screen than any other film genre. Singin' in the Rain, All That Jazz, even Little Shop of Horrors - all make me swoon. I've been all too often underwhelmed, however, by recent offerings - ho-hum stage-to-screen adaptations of the likes of The Producers, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, among others. Even the Oscar-winning Chicago I felt missed the mark, albeit to a lesser extent than those three.
So, I was of course ecstatic when I first heard about filmmaker Damien Chazelle - whose Whiplash I was completely head-over-heels for - collaborating with the endlessly charming Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling on an original (!) musical for the big screen. Oddly enough, the result, La La Land, is something I think works a bit better as a love story than it does a musical.
The story - Mia (Stone), an aspiring actress who works as a barista on a Hollywood studio lot, meets Sebastian (Gosling), a brilliant jazz pianist who makes ends meet playing uninspiring Christmas jingles at a restaurant. Their brief first encounter is during a moment of road rage on a busy Los Angeles highway. Mia later discovers Sebastian playing a gorgeous composition at the restaurant (which gets him fired from that gig) and sees him perform again (a not-so-gorgeous tune this time) at a party months later.
At this point, they (at last!) start to warm up to each other, and Mia and Sebastian create plenty of adorable moments, but the relationship is greatly tested by their careers. Mia finds herself rejected in audition after audition, while Sebastian is pressured to abandon his classic jazz sound for something more mainstream and pop-heavy. The love between these two is palpable and undeniable but hey, we're talking about a city infamous for building dreamers up, only to tear them down.
Scattered throughout the picture are, of course, an array of original songs, composed by Justin Hurwitz, who also worked on Chazelle's Whiplash. There are some goodies here - I particularly liked "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)," performed by Stone, and "Mia and Sebastian's Theme," a key piano composition of Sebastian's - but I have to admit, I did not leave the theater humming a whole lot. The splashy opening number "Another Day of Sun" was all too reminiscent to me of those cheesy late-'90s Gap commercials that brought swing music back to the mainstream. Other tunes are well-choreographed on the screen but fail to much resonate beyond the dancing. Still, the Hurwitz orchestrations on the whole are pretty great and Chazelle has a fine grasp on how to effectively shoot a musical.
Beyond the music, there are of course the film's stars, Stone and Gosling, both of who truly dazzle here. Yes, they're irresistible to watch, and can sing and dance pretty darn well to boot, but these are two powerful, subtle, even often times heartbreaking turns, worthy of all the attention they've garnered thus far. When Mia abandons a dud of a date to join Sebastian at a screening of Rebel Without a Cause? Talk about sparks flying.
From a technical perspective, the picture looks terrific, with lovely cinematography by Linus Sandgren and production design by David Wasco. The film is edited by Tom Cross, who won a richly deserved Oscar for his work on Whiplash.
Is La La Land among the all-time great movie musicals? Not in the least. I don't even think it's Chazelle's strongest film or quite among the best pictures of 2016. It is, however, a real charmer and an immense delight to sit back and watch Stone and Gosling take over the screen. And hey, even if it's not a great musical, it'd still be pretty sweet if this film inspires non-musical lovers to check out some of the older, better stuff.