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Don't Stop the Music

Emma Stone
Emma Stone
 128 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by:  Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
La La Land

What we think of today as a “book musical,” namely a theatrical production that incorporates song-and-dance numbers as an integral part of a dramatic work, as opposed to being merely a revue or concert, dates from the early 20th century, and, in all that time, writers and producers have never been able to fully solve one fundamental problem. In a nutshell, musicals are not natural. People do not stop what they are doing in the middle of a scene and spontaneously break out in lengthy songs (usually with full orchestral accompaniment) or elaborate dance routines. Whenever an audience realizes this truism, the illusion that supports the staged work can be shattered and the drama dissipated. That problem is even worse on screen, because the camera gives an even greater sense of reality than a stage that is an obvious artifice provides.

That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been great dramatic musicals; of course, there have. But at some point, the audience may well say to itself that what they’re seeing isn’t real, and the more lavish and successful the musical numbers are, the more likely the audience is to reject the dramatic sequences and enjoy the film solely for its musical value. Screenwriters and directors have wrestled with this dilemma for decades, and the latest to do so is Damien Chazelle in the highly inventive La La Land.

As the title suggests, La La Land is set in Los Angeles, where artists of all sorts get by any way they can while waiting for their big break. Among them is Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress working oh so close to her promised land as a coffee shop barista at a Hollywood studio. She keeps running into Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a pianist/keyboardist reduced to playing background music at a toney restaurant. Their first meeting occurs right after he gets fired by the Scrooge-like manager (J.K. Simmons) for straying from the approved playlist of Christmas songs. The naturally upset Sebastian brushes Mia off, but she remembers him the next time she sees him at a Hollywood pool party where he’s the keyboardist for a cover band entertaining the guests.

Naturally, the two eventually click and begin seeing each other, revealing their ultimate ambitions. She wants to be a successful actress and playwright, while he wants to open his own jazz club, playing what he feels is real music. Sebastian gets his break well before Mia does, as his old friend Keith (John Legend) signs Sebastian to play in his new jazz band. Sebastian isn’t all that happy working with Keith, because the band is on the road a lot and because their musical tastes are a bit too much rock and not enough jazz for his tastes, but he goes along, meaning that he has less and less time to be with Mia.

Mia’s career keeps going downward, as she goes to audition after audition, enduring one humiliation after another. The absolute nadir occurs when she rents an auditorium to put on a one-woman play she’s written and the performance turns into a disaster. To make things worse, Sebastian can’t make the show because he’s at a photo shoot. In despair, Mia moves back with her parents and misses a call from a casting director for a new movie who actually saw Mia’s show. Sebastian does get the message and heads to Mia’s hometown to try to persuade her to give acting one more shot.

Providing a plot synopsis for La La Land is like providing a synopsis for The Sound of Music; it tells, at best, half the story. The movie is filled with musical numbers from the opening scene to a dazzling finale. Many of them recall classic numbers, with Gosling and Stone having two different lengthy dance sequences, one in which they literally float in the air above the Griffith Planetarium, like an astral Astaire and Rogers. The earlier dance number (shown below), while Sebastian walks Mia to her car following the pool party, resembles some of Gene Kelly’s routines. Neither of them, however, compare to the opening sequence, a single tracking shot featuring a typical Los Angeles freeway traffic jam that becomes oh so untypical when the occupants spill out of their vehicles and start dancing on top of and between the cars, all perfectly choreographed. As for the finale, I don’t want to spoil the ending, but let’s just say it uses music perfectly to sum up the movie and put the rest of the film in a somewhat different light.

In and of themselves, the musical numbers work, even the less imaginative concert tunes. And if La La Land were content to be just a musical, a couple more of them in the film’s second half would have made it an even better musical. But there are almost no musical interludes in that second half up until the finale, and the one number in that part of the movie serves as a reminder that this is not just a musical. It’s also a serious look at art and entertainment and two people wrestling love and careers. As such, La La Land is a good movie, but the music holds it back from being a great one.

That doesn’t mean that La La Land isn’t fun to watch. Stone and Gosling have passable voices, better suited to the quieter moments in the film, but they really excel as dancers. Chazelle learned from Fred Astaire, who always insisted that the camera show his entire body during dance routines (easier done in the 1930s when all movies were made with a boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio). Here, Chazelle does the same thing, straining to let the audience see how the stars move their feet in some perfectly choreographed routines. Doubtless a fair amount of reshots were needed (and in the planetarium scene some special effects work as well), but the overall effect is very impressive.

Where Stone and Gosling lack a bit in their vocal quality, they more than make up for it with their acting. Expect Oscar nominations for both of them, as they deliver powerful performances both in the dramatic sequences and in the romantic ones. In fact, it’s the quality of their acting that makes the dramatic misfire more telling. A movie that features two powerhouse performances from its leads should blow the audience away in its entirety. La La Land only manages that feat when the music is playing.

I don’t want to be harsher on the film than it is. In an era of CGI overkill, La La Land is a breath of fresh air, and it’s a definite crowd pleaser. Audiences could do far worse as far as quality and entertainment value are concerned. Director Chazelle’s musical routines will rightly become a model for future films. Then again, Grease is a crowd pleaser, but it’s never made any “best films” lists. I heartily recommend La La Land for what it is, a dazzlingly inventive musical that often succeeds and never disappoints.

In this scene (subtitled), Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone's flirtation turns into a dance number.

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La La Land (2016) on IMDb