Will 'La La Land' save the movie musical?

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in 'La La Land'Summit Entertainment

December 16, 2016

No. The answer is no, La La Land won't save the movie musical. If anything will, it's Hamilton and Chi-Raq: productions (whether movies or not) that demonstrate the musical's continuing relevance to contemporary concerns, and its ability to absorb new styles. La La Land is so resolutely backward-looking that what it does to advance the genre is practically surreptitious.

Can, however, writer-director Damien Chazelle's ravishing film revive the movie musical long enough to captivate an audience? There, the answer is totally yes.

The grand yet intimate film tells the story of a love affair between a jazz pianist named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and an actress named Mia (Emma Stone). After a meet-surly that gradually becomes something more like a meet-cute, they bond in a sweet musical number set on a street high above Los Angeles. It's not immediately clear what unites them beyond Mandy Moore's charming choreography, but as generations of movie stars have demonstrated, when the number is working that's all you really need.

Though La La Land is set in the present day, Chazelle's devotion to an earlier era of cinema begins at the picture's very beginning, when a narrow picture expands to demonstrate the film's widescreen format — as though widescreen is a novelty in an era when we all carry one in our pocket.

Chazelle is also out to re-romanticize Los Angeles, starting with an opening scene that plays like a grand parody of R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" video. Stuck in traffic, dozens of Angelenos jump out of their cars — and leap onto the roofs, for a virtuoso song-and-dance number that Chazelle has likened to the introduction of the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz.

That, however, turns out to be the film's only large-cast production number until a fantasy sequence at the end. For most of its duration, La La Land plays like more of a chamber musical, with Stone and Gosling singing warm but haunting songs as solos or duets. The music breathes some air into what could otherwise feel claustrophobic: there's no screwball comedy, and only a brief suggestion of a love triangle. The film is just about these two characters trying to figure it out.

Much of the film's achievement lies in its thoroughgoing incorporation of the music by Justin Hurwitz — a composer who also worked with Chazelle on Whiplash. Source music played by Sebastian and other musicians onscreen is woven into the fabric of Hurwitz's lush but lucid orchestrations, which take center stage in a (literally) cosmic dance number and the sweeping montage that concludes the film.

The characters are older than they were in Chazelle's original conception — Stone is in her late 20s, Gosling in his mid-30s — which turns out to be crucial to the film's tone and approach. They're not ingenues, but people who have been at it for a while, trying to pay the rent by way of their art and starting to wonder whether that means a permanent state of compromise. (Mia's giggly roommates feel like a holdover from the earlier vision, though they earn their keep in an effervescent party-prep scene.)

Part of what makes La La Land stick with you is its distinctive salty-sweet tone: the promise of the swelling strings cut with the cold reality we feel in scenes like Mia's unsuccessful auditions and a fight over dinner that nicely captures the boom-bust nature of relationships between couples whose careers keep them apart for long stretches of time.

That emotional realism is essential to Chazelle's achievement, but it also raises the stakes — to the point where the script's plot and characterization failings become bigger liabilities than they might be in a fluffier context. We need the music to paper over the implausibility of Stone's initial attraction to Gosling (yes, I know we're talking about Ryan Gosling here, but he starts out as a total asshole, and we're also talking about Emma Stone here). Supporting characters are introduced, then disappear; and a crucial plot turn has Sebastian making a choice that seems wholly inexplicable given what we've been led to believe about these characters and their priorities.

Still, the patient conviction of Chazelle and his stars, and the constantly gratifying attention to detail and tone, turn this endearingly analog tale into an instant classic of its kind. MTV's Amy Nicholson calls La La Land "a twee Mason jar of a movie," a phrase that captures the film's pristine, self-conscious reappropriation of a bygone aesthetic — but fails to do justice to Chazelle's attempt to infuse this material with a wistful resignation.

There's a lot going on beneath the surface of La La Land. While that's a lot messier than what's on top, can't the same be said of all of us?

Watch for an interview with Justin Hurwitz on Performance Today, Dec. 22.