A huge step forward for musical theatre, and a nostalgic nod to the past in film, there’s something truly special happening in Damien Chazelle’s new film “La La Land”.
The film’s hype is widespread. As was predicted, it enjoyed great success at both the Golden Globes and at The Oscars. Even with coming second to Moonlight for best picture, La La Land basically wiped out at the awards with a record-breaking number of nominations. Unsure of what’s hit them, people mostly don’t know what to think about this. Then, of course, there’s the less transparent opinions:
The criticism the film flacks isn’t uncalled for. It, and its blurred genre, lack consistency in style; the audio is over-produced (jarring when accompanied with such superb raw filmic acting); and the leads do not exactly bring the house down with their singing and dancing abilities. It copped a lot of hype, mainly for being a bit different. For me, however, the list of negatives just has to stop here.
At a post-viewing Q+A I attended at the Lincoln Center in New York, somebody asked the film’s lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dogfight, Dear Evan Hansen) if they felt that they were “spearheading” an exciting movement for musicals onto screen again. The modest duo laughed a little, reminded us that they were not actually the composers for this film, and replied “not necessarily” but that they are extremely grateful to Chazelle for creating his passion project and giving people the permission to create more films that will incorporate song and dance. Pasek adds that what really excites him about the film’s current state of success is that “maybe, just maybe, it brings the world another step closer to realising that they don’t have to be allergic to musical theatre”.
Of course, this ‘movement’ was well underway before the films’ release in November. Aside from our generations deep-rooted fondness for disney sing-alongs, stage shows have been faddish since ‘Glee’, and since then our home television screens have been graced with “Grease Live”, “Sound of Music Live”, and most recently “Hairspray Live”: a series phenomenon bringing big names into one-off performances of musical classics. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Netflix Australia has even bought into it! Our problem here, fellow MT die-hards, is that “the outsiders” are more than likely still going to look down upon this celebration of all things tacky, and extroverted.
The guys n’ dolls working in the big screen biz manage to help us out a little by mainstreaming more serious works of art; in 2012 Les Miserables enjoyed widespread appeal, as did Into The Woods in 2014. Now, we’re looking at something truly bizarre. An original musical (we can this film a musical, right?).
Looking past the red herring that is it’s outlandish, all-cast opening number “Another Day of Sun”, La La Land takes itself seriously. Chazelle’s decision to cast the simply brilliant Emma Stone is indication alone that the film nurtures subtlety. The story is simple- two lovers, big dreams- but not so one-dimensional that the viewer doesn’t have to think at all, as would be the case for most other musicals that earn the industry it’s deadly rep. The songs might not have a vocal climax, and therefore will be dismissed as a boring, belt-less sing, but if you ask me they perfectly match the scenes that are unfolding (think of what a party in LA should sound like) and that’s what any good soundtrack would do.
Of course, realism is tossed aside a little when somebody opens their mouth to sing what they’re feeling. But just because it’s set in the present day, in the very real city of Los Angeles, and there are no spacecrafts or ghost to speak of, a little dash of fantasy is not something that needs to be shy’d away from. Musicals are no more outlandish than X-men, after all.
La La Land is a brilliant homage to the golden age of film when singing was just a natural extension to the actor saying how they felt. Then, it was perfectly acceptable, to anyone watching, that when they couldn’t find the words any longer, the actor simply danced. It’s impossible not to think back nostalgically on Gene Kelly films- American in Paris, On The Town- when you’re watching Chazelle’s masterpiece. When it feels ready to lift it’s viewers out of a scene depicting mere events, and it’s time to emote, the film shamelessly mimics scenes from old films such as these. The best example of this lay in what has to be it’s most beautiful scene: the dance sequence at the end. This sort of montage, of the lead skipping from one world to the next, is an old technique. It was common for song and dance movies to take some artistic liberty with this sort of expression; think “Broadway Rhythms” in Singing in the Rain. The result? Aesthetic genius. It’s very pleasant to look at.
It’s not what you expected. It might not be your favourite film of the year. And it very well might have too much hype surrounding it. But La La Land is beautiful. It’s a vision, and a passionate one at that. It’s not your everyday rom-com, but that’s romantic in itself.