For most of my life musicals were probably the biggest genre of film that I had no interest in. I grew up watching classics like Wizard of Oz and all the classic Disney musicals, but other than that I generally held the genre in a pretty low regard. That probably comes from my mom’s love of musicals like Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar, and that childhood belief of not wanting to like things your parents like. But whatever the reason I pretty quickly decided that musicals were “lame” and certainly not for me, so I stayed the hell away from them.And that streak went strong until I met my wife, who was a lifelong fan of musicals both in film and on the stage. So she showed me a couple classic musicals, and it still wasn’t quite clicking. That is until she showed me Singin’ in the Rain, and it all clicked for me. From there I started investigating this neglected genre, and have come to be quite fond of it. It’s a difficult genre to get right, but when someone gets it right it’s so good. So of course I was going to be excited when I heard that the writer and director of the fantastic Whiplash was coming out with a new film that was going to be a pure musical. It wasn’t some ironic mockery of the genre, or some stilted and boring slog like that terrible Les Miserables film from a couple of years ago. It was going to be a loving homage to the classic musicals of the 50s and 60s, and from what I heard from just about every critic out there, it was an amazing film and quite possibly the best film of the year.
And that may be correct. Because I loved this movie so goddamn much it’s kind of had to put into words. Writer and director Damien Chazelle, songwriter Justin Hurwitz, and the two leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have created a movie that is somehow an unironic, loving homage to classic musicals while also simultaneously showing that it’s still a genre full of vibrancy and potential. It’s a stunning film with tremendous performances, some amazing songs, and a sense of wonder and color that’s been woefully missing from mainstream Hollywood for quite some time, and I didn’t realize I was missing it so much until I saw this and realized how deprived we’ve been.
The film is a quintessential Los Angeles story, and follows two people struggling to make it in the city of angels. We have Mia the hopeful actress who is actually just a barista in a coffeehouse on a studio lot and Sebastian the aspiring jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own jazz club where he can properly deify and worship his favorite type of music. Neither of them are successful and are just drifting through their lives, struggling and failing time and time again. But their paths are drawn together briefly when Mia is drawn into the restaurant that Sebastian is playing in, finding his piano skill so beautiful she had to see who was doing it. But Sebastian had just been fired, so he storms past her, being an asshole. Which brings us to their next encounter several months later when he’s piecing together a living in an 80’s cover-band that happens to be playing at the party that Mia is suffering through. She begins picking on him, and they strike up a conversation that leads to them wandering around the Hollywood hills that night, having an utterly charming soft-shoe routine. And despite both of them informing the other that they felt nothing from that encounter, Sebastian shows up at her coffee-shop the next day and they end up talking for hours, making a date to go see Rebel Without a Cause.
Which proves to be a slight problem when we learn that Mia is actually in a relationship with some boring businessman. But she has no problem blowing that relationship, and a dinner with his brother, off when she hears one of Sebastian’s standard songs in the restaurant, and runs to be with him. And after watching some of Rebel Without a Cause they decide to sneak off into the Griffith Observatory and their romance begins to bloom. From there they become an adorable couple, each supporting the others art totally and completely. Sebastian wants to open his own club and Mia decides to start writing a one-woman show to show the town what she’s capable of. But while Mia is actively trying to better her career, Sebastian still seems pretty aimless, so he decides to sell his soul a bit and join a jazz-ish band led by a former acquaintance of his, and starts to tour with them, playing music that isn’t necessarily in his wheelhouse. And that’s where thing start to go wrong. Sebastian starts spending all of his time with the band, either on tour or in the studio, and things become pretty straining with him and Mia. They almost never see each other, and Mia is having a heard time seeing this man she loves playing music that he can’t stand, and she kind of calls him out on that. Which was a bad all. The two have a massive fight that ends in Sebastian not going to Mia’s one-woman show, which was basically empty to begin with. Which is the last straw for Mia. She can’t take the rejection and heart-ache that comes with being a struggling actress anymore, and since Sebastian completely screwed her over she decides to give up and go home to middle-of-nowhere Nevada and forget her life.
But Sebastian isn’t going to let her do that. Because while he’s laying in bed depressed one day he gets a call from a casting director who has him listed as a contact for Mia. Apparently this casting director was one of the few people at Mia’s one-woman show, and she wants Mia to audition for a big movie. So Sebastian drives all the way out to Nevada and finds Mia’s house, telling her about the audition and convincing her to come back. So she does, aces the audition, and is going to have to move to France for several months. Which is where the two part ways. Sebastian is too focused on his touring and she’s making her big break, so they decide to split up and follow their dreams. And several years later we see Mia and her husband happen to end up at Sebastian’s new club. The two’s eyes meet and and Sebastian plays a song that he wrote for her, where the both have a fantasy of what their life would be like if everything had gone right and they ended up together. But that’s not reality, so once the song is done Mia leaves, and the two exchange a smile, going back to their own lives.
This film was a perfectly joyous experience. Everything about this film worked for me on almost every conceivable level. The acting was superb, the songs were terrific, and the choreography was delightful. But one of the things that I loved most about this film was the fact that it took the tropes of the musical genre and put a modern twist on it. I’ve been utterly baffled at the lack of musicals in modern day. One of my biggest problem with some of the classic musicals is that the’re incredibly stilted when it comes to direction. Movies like The King and I just never connected with me because it’s mostly just people standing perfectly still, singing, while the camera doesn’t move. It’s basically the same experience as watching a stage musical, and doesn’t take any advantage of the medium of film. And now that cameras are so light-weight and maneuverable it seemed obvious that someone could use that technology to make a frenetic musical that let you be part of the choreography. And that’s exactly what we got in this movie. We dance and glide through the dance numbers, creating visuals unlike any musical I’ve ever seen, and it was a goddamn work of art.
And it’s things like that that really made this movie for me. It was instantly recognizable as a musical and completely lavishes in that aesthetic. And yet by the end it shows that this genre has plenty of steam left, and if we keep letting it grow and change there’s no limit to the quality of films that could be made. But it was doing something different with the genre. Things didn’t end the way that you think it would. They don’t end up together. They still seem happy with their lives and their decisions, but they don’t end up as a couple. They became each other’s muses. Their relationship spurred both of them to fulfill their lives goals. But they won’t be living those lives together. There’s a part of the movie where Sebastian is talking to his musician friend Keith and they talk about how the only way to save jazz is to subvert it and turn it into something new. And that’s what they’ve done with this film. The musical has almost died, and instead of delivering a post-mortem this film subverted the genre, did something new with it, and showed that the musical is far from dead. It’s alive and well, just waiting for more filmmakers with the passion and zeal to do it justice. And I can’t wait to see where we go from here.
La La Land was written and directed by Damien Chazelle and released by Summit Entertainment, 2016.