Monday 19 December 2016

La La Land (2016) - Movie Review
The movie musical is dead. Or, at least, the original concept of the movie musical is dead. Starting out as a natural extension of film’s stylistic origins in theatre, it was full of big grins and bigger dance numbers about the ways of life and love. And then we started to get inventive with the format, using it less as a means of showing the fantastical nature of the musical and more to highlight it as a heavy contrast to the harshness of reality. Through this, we’ve gotten some proper quality musical films as Sweeney Todd, Repo! The Genetic Opera, Hedwig And The Angry Inch, Reefer Madness and a bunch of others that wouldn’t even be conceivable as viable musicals back in the old days. Now, as much as this evolution of the format has honestly worked out for the best all things considered, maybe a bit of revivalism could help keep everything in perspective. And thanks to rising star filmmaker Damian Chazelle, it seems that we have just that for today.

The plot: Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and frustrated jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), both trying to make it in Hollywood, end up crossing paths on their respective paths to stardom. As they start to connect and fuel each other’s drive to succeed, it seems that the ways of fame and fortune aren’t going to come as easily as either of them could have thought. When it comes down to the wire and they may have to pick between each other and their dreams, this happy pairing may not be ready to accept the answer.

Well, if we’re going with the romantic approach, this is probably the best main character pairing we could have ever asked for for numerous reasons. Their respective track records in romance films, their previous experience as each other’s love interest in other works, their seemingly unlimited capacity to be great romantic leads opposite just about anyone; this film already gets the big thumbs-up on the casting front. Luckily, their performances live up to that pedigree. Stone not only manages to sell both the dramatic moments and her singing (which, as far as films are concerned, is new territory for her) but pulls the ultimate movie musical gambit of being able to do both at once.

Gosling, who actually has a minor history in music thanks to his band Dead Man’s Bones, does a fantastic job as someone who pretty much lives and breathes music, adding tremendous weight to his songs while also doing wonders behind the piano. J.K. Simmons, whom has already shown great things working with Chazelle before, adds some nice abrasion to his role as the owner of a club Sebastian plays in, John Legend may inspire one too many knowing laughs as the pop ‘sell-out’ musician but he fills those shoes well, and Rosemarie DeWitt as Sebastian’s sister makes for some decent conflict early on.

This film wastes absolutely no time in setting up its tone and production approach to its musical numbers, kicking off with the loud and proud Another Day Of Sun. And my word, even considering how surprisingly good some of the musical films of the year have been, this is astoundingly impressive in its working. Honouring the melding of theatre and cinema that birthed older musical films, the one-take dance sequences and singing show a lot of confidence in the cast and crew’s ability to keep everything running smoothly, something that they can absolutely back up. In fact, it’s easily comparable to The Nice Guys from earlier this year in how assured it is of its own power. That clarity works beyond just the presentation of the music and goes into the construction of the songs as well, showing genuine poetry in how they weave themselves into the narrative and push it forward. Composed by Chazelle’s right-hand composer Justin Hurwitz, and penned by the duo that gave us Get Back Up Again from the Trolls movie, it’s honestly not all that surprising that it turns out as smooth and sweet as it does here.

It’s one thing though to make a film with good music; it’s quite another to make a film that itself feels like good music, and that is exactly what Chazelle seems to have done here. Taking one of the oldest staples of cinema, the ode to the working class city symphony, to its most literal extreme, the structure of the narrative on its own has a form like a classic music piece, using the advantages of the film medium to create magic with how it handles mood and atmosphere. This is initially surprising, considering the story of people trying to make it in the big city is one of the most overused conceits there is in the realms of cinema, especially where musicals are concerned. Framed around the thematic relevance of the seasons of the year, this film uses emotion and a hybridization of storytelling techniques to create something genuinely breathtaking. Hell, the fact that the story is as instantly recognizable as it is might be the single greatest asset of the story itself.

Much like with our relationship with Christmas, it’s most likely because of modern-day cynicism that the movie musical has taken the route it has in recent years. We have pretty much been tutored from birth to know that this idealistic tone when it comes to gaining fame and renown, especially in the more creative arts, is something that just isn’t feasible in reality. There have been entire films and schools of thought dedicated to dissecting the dream and proving that it isn’t worth chasing to the extent that it has been shown in the past. Well, this film has a markedly different stance on that point. Using sensibilities of the past and present, it doesn’t make it a point to hide away from the harsh reality that rejection is a common occurrence in the glitzier areas of the world… but it doesn’t outright attack the dream either. It acknowledges that that ideal exists for a reason, as something for a prospective entertainer to aim for even if they never get it. In the words of one of the greatest directors working today, we want to be fooled. This ends up being perfectly encapsulated in the film’s finale, which is a dizzying display of just how much the romantic escapism of the era is still alive and well inside us and, even if it hurts us through its own distance, the want to make it in La La Land isn’t as removed from our current ideals as we may think.

All in all, this is an astounding work that lends credence to a mindset that the world regularly rips to pieces, while not making the film itself out to be incessantly idealistic in the process. The cast are all fantastic in how they balance the dramatic and harmonic elements of the script, which itself is written with a heady mixture of real-world clarity and starry-eyed wonder, the music definitely creeps up on you after the film is over in its catchiness, and the direction exhibits absolute skill in being able to weave a musical tale that utilizes the best of the genre’s timeline to tremendous effect.

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