THE movie musical is, without a doubt, one of Hollywood’s least-understood genres – animation aside (Frozen etc), there isn’t really much a market for it nowadays, least of all one in the outrageously cinematic Golden Age tradition. La La Land has, then, identified a surprising niche – moviegoers will no doubt seek out its smiles and sunshine in the face of 2017’s uncertainty, but there’s so much more to it than that. Damien Chazelle (previously known for Whiplash, the 2014
drumsploitation thriller) directs with fire and diligence, weaving very disparate, potentially clichéd elements (free jazz, dreams versus reality, the secret emptiness of Tinseltown) into a gorgeous, totally original whole.
Mesmerising as they are, La La Land’s song-and-dance segments are less a spectacle unto themselves as they are a means via which the drama is fleshed out and propelled graciously forward – here, the film is in the tradition of the best genre pictures, and it is tireless in its reconstruction of their magic, their humble narrative essence. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are reunited for the third time on-screen as star-crossed young lovers struggling to survive the burdens and compromises of life in LA. The former, a jazz purist, is gradually coming to terms with a world that just won’t listen, while the latter is an aspiring actor, eking a living from the usual McJobs while seeking “someone in the crowd” at an array of glitzy, soulless parties. Their early encounters, punctuated seamlessly with some dangerously catchy, retro-sounding numbers, are storybook whimsy, brought to life with the aid of glorious CinemaScope photography. Despite the saccharine absurdity unfolding all around them, however (the movie opens with a 100-man dance sequence on a motorway overpass that truly needs to be seen to be believed), we find ourselves buying into the characters – while La La Land appreciates the casual brutalities of everyday life, its actual feat is in casting them alongside glamour, excess and Americana aplenty.
You’d be hard-pressed to forget a mid-picture visit to the Griffith Observatory where our central couple quite literally take flight, but this is followed, just a half-hour later, with a dissection of relationship woes that never fails to be anything but painfully candid and relatable. The viewer finds themselves hanging on the film’s every word (and note); it stretches the limits of plausibility like wet Playdoh in a choreographer’s hands, and, miraculously, pulls it off. Although Stone and Gosling are strictly in the spotlight where La La Land’s drama is concerned (to the extent that virtually all other human interactions are depicted as muffled and futile), John Legend does much to ease the pace of some slower sections as an R&B ‘revolutionary’ who comes to rub off Gosling’s stubborn ‘traditionalist’.
As aforementioned, the second half settles down into a more sombre, realistic treatment of love and relationships, but at no point does the transition feel crude or misplaced, a testament to the film’s mastery of its form. Despite its old-school sensibilities, this is very much a musical for the 21st century (our heroine is a Starbucks barista); as a piece of cinema, it opens up avenues and possibilities that were, until recently, unthinkable. La La Land has resurrected a dying genre – in that respect alone, it will go down as a modern masterpiece.