To start off, I must admit this holiday season has reignited my love affair with the movies. Over the past ten days, I’ve seen Rogue One, Fences, Dr. Strange, and La La Land. Of all of these, the latter is certainly the one that will stay with me the longest. Not that the others were bombs, far from it. It’s just that La La Land was the only one that spoke in soft tones with the full realization that sometimes the greatest impact comes from the silences between the notes. As I’ve told my actors numerous times over my career as a stage director, “Volume does not equal passion.” This film is my new exhibit ‘A.’
For those unaware, La La Land is an unabashed musical that hearkens back to the genre’s splashy technicolor heyday of the early fifties to mid-sixties. Emma Stone plays an aspiring actress named Mia, and Ryan Gosling plays a jazz pianist named Sebastian, who meet and fall in love in present day Los Angeles. The chemistry between the two performers is absolutely perfect, which accounts for why this is the third time we’ve seen them romantically paired onscreen (2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love. and 2013’s Gangster Squad being the other two examples). Even before the plot introduced the inevitable obstacles to their relationship, I found myself dreading having to see these two not be happy together. However, the true star of the film for me was the one behind the camera, namely director Damien Chazelle.
It was very refreshing to see a film that presented a true singular vision of one artist as opposed to the decision by committee world of the current Star Wars and Marvel universes. By the end of its just over two hour running time, I felt like I had been told a story by a sincere narrator with a clear idea of what he wanted to say. Granted, not everyone will appreciate the extended scenes without dialogue played out to the accompaniment of a single piano, but after having my ears assaulted by the timpani-driven soundtracks of many of today’s hottest films, I found it quite refreshing to just watch a scene slowly unspool itself from the reel.
In terms of cinematography and costume design, many of those unspooling scenes were simply gorgeous. I lived in Southern California for over a decade and never saw sunsets as beautiful as those seen in La La Land. Instead of the quick cuts and swooping drone-eye-views so often employed by filmmakers today, this movie was primarily shot in long segments from eye-level. The camera would often glide in smooth arcs to reflect the choreography of the performers. The bright, monochromatic costumes helped connect the film to its splashier predecessors, and I found myself wondering where I could pick-up pieces from Sebastian’s wardrobe (I am a sucker for those geometrically patterned ties of the thirties and forties).
On the down side, it’s clear that neither Ryan Gosling nor Emma Stone are singers by nature. This fact is hammered home every time John Legend, in a supporting role, opened his mouth to sing. By contrast, Ryan’s voice particularly was thin, at best. His dance steps are also appear to be the product of intense practice versus any natural rhythm; however, his stage presence does much to excuse such weaknesses. While I can’t say I’ll be downloading any of the songs to my iPhone, the musical interludes did serve their purpose of effectively helping the characters express their feelings towards each other and life in general. And while I appreciated the way the film avoiding showing any overt physical acts of affection (aside from a touching scene involving holding hands for the first time), parents should be a warned there is a f-bomb waiting in the wings. Though I am far from prudish when it comes to language, its use here was both jarring and unnecessary.
Overall, what most struck me most about La La Land was the way it embodied the genre of jazz, which is unique in the way it represents musicians having a conversation as opposed to an orchestra which endeavors to create a unified voice from many layered elements. Jazz is a very intimate and subtle form of communication featuring the natural give-and-take found in any relationship between people. Where an orchestra is best suited for telling epic stories of invading Valkyries, jazz shines when it relates the everyday tales of people falling in and out of love, of dealing with the harsh line between dreams and reality, and of trying to find the words to express emotions you yourself don’t truly understand. La La Land is a film about these things, and even though its story is set on a small scale, its musical scale only hit notes of truth.