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“La La Land”: Does nostalgia still work in our cynical age?

Written By | Feb 5, 2017

WASHINGTON, February 5, 2017 – Though they seem to go into and out of fashion, movie musicals have been a longstanding part of the lifeblood of Hollywood cinema. As a genre, the movie musical one of the oldest, and because its roots are so tied to the Hollywood structure of filmmaking, it’s become a beloved tradition that’s revived again and again just when you think it’s gone out of style.

This, at least in part, explains the sudden attention “La La Land” has been getting ever since it started making the rounds on the festival circuit in late 2016. What’s old is new again in this film, whose music and reliable genre clichés have been freshened up and brightened once again, the better to appeal to a 21st century audience.

One of the reasons musicals gradually disappeared from movie palaces since their mid- 20th century peak is relatively easy to explain: the novelty wore out. While stage musicals remain alive and kicking though currently over-exposed, they lose some of their luster when they get translated to the silver screen. Novelties like the evolution toward color films, larger screens and better sound eventually ran their course, even as such films lost a great deal of that live-theater intimacy in the process of film and sound editing.

For these reasons, instead of becoming an established cornerstone of Hollywood cinema like adventure and detective films, movie musicals evolved into an exercise in nostalgia after the passing of their Golden Age at the midpoint of the 20th century.

While not all musicals are bright and cheery throughout, it’s the kind of atmosphere they traditionally promoted. After all, it’s easier to get lost in paper-thin narrative when everything surrounding a story line is beautiful and engaging and when it’s all expressed in memorable tunes. Musicals don’t have to necessarily be deep in execution just so long as their escapist dreams remain intact, particularly in those big, exuberant production numbers where everything wonderful seems possible.

This is exactly the kind of environment “La La Land” provides its audience the very moment it launches its opening number. Without involving either of the film’s central characters, this opening song and dance sequence sets the tone for the entire film, acting very much like a traditional Broadway overture foreshadowing the action even before the action starts. It succinctly projects the atmosphere of the city where these characters live, drawing the audience into that environment in the process.

The opening sequence eschews glamorous Hollywood film clichés and presents Los Angeles as the sprawling, traffic-clogged ideological mess it really is. It’s in many ways the high water mark of the film, something that might even be extracted and run on its own as an extended music video. The following trailer will give you a sample.

At the same time, it’s an absolutely wonderful example of the heights “La La Land” tries to reach through the traditional magic of the movie musical. Pulsating like the big city itself, its opening number is the only moment in the film that employs a large cast depicting a kaleidoscope of diverse people that can be found at the core Los Angeles. In keeping with these atmospherics, the camera weaves its way from car to car, giving the illusion that the sequence is being filmed in one cut. This is precisely the king of illusion a musical can pull off beautifully in film. It can’t be so thrillingly replicated in any other medium.

Director Damien Chazelle, cinematographer Linus Sandgren, choreographer Mandy Moore, and the film’s editor Tom Cross pulled off an absolutely amazing feat here, given how many moving parts they’re working. This opener is fantastically energizing and seamless, setting a tone of bedazzlement as a “Another Day of Sun” captures perfectly the mystique Los Angeles possesses both culturally and individually for Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), the movie’s pair of romantic leads.

Alas, “La La Land” never hits these heights again. The opening sequence is painted on as large a canvas as Chazelle can conceive. But the movie he has in mind is far more personal and intimate. For that reason, the opening sequence acts like a trailer-teaser, a commercial to sell the audience on a film that’s really about the dreams Mia and Sebastian—dreams that can only unfold for them within their concept of LA. They can’t envision their best selves existing anywhere else, and the world becomes small.

Both characters are in love with the idea of the city. That fuels their budding romance, which is really the heart of this film.

Mia wants to be an actress. She walks starry-eyed through the Hollywood sets where she works as a barista, auditioning for roles between shifts. For his part, Sebastian is a piano player by trade, driven by visions of opening his own jazz nightclub. Their meeting and courtship is the real heart of the film’s narrative.

But every movie musical needs a conflict to arise. As we meet them, Mia and Sebastian are adrift and discover one another because they share a sense of wonder, frustration and longing. They’re willing to enter each other’s life after enduring a series of disappointments. Hence, their initial eagerness to make their new romantic attachment work.

Mia wants to get out of the rut she’s gotten into by haphazardly chasing her dream and refusing to give us. Sebastian is actually looking for almost any avenue where he can share his love of jazz and the culture that surrounds it. Neither is specifically looking for a partner. Yet their mutual need for with sharing their artistic trials and tribulations leads easily into an unexpected romance.

A pair of musical set pieces bookend their courtship. “City of Stars” unfolds as the pair gets together to search for Mia’s car. Later, Mia, after hearing Sebastian play “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme,” is almost immediately smitten with him, a feeling he doesn’t fully return until they attend a party and take a walk together. The musical give and take here is a playful moment for them both as they prance about overlooking the valley as the sun sets in the west.

The musical number “Planetarium” marks the continuation of their courtship, as both Mia and Sebastian put their feelings essentially on the line. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have been in a number of films previously. Their onscreen chemistry has been duly noted, and it really shines through in number as their characters go overboard for each other.

As a set scene, “Planetarium” highlights the whimsical reality that “La La Land” successfully creates by taking advantage of the well-known LA landmarks that ooze cinematic history. But it also provides the kind of romantic energy that inspires the best of Hollywood musicals

Unfortunately, it’s just after these scintillating scenes depicting Mia and Sebastian’s courtship that cracks start to appear in the story line of “La La Land,” and much of this has to do with the central flaw in the film’s lead characters. Despite a professed interest in artistic endeavors, neither Mia nor Sebastian see themselves as creators.

Frustrated in her pursuit of an acting career, Mia tries to create a one-woman play for herself. But it’s not art she’s trying to create. It’s a process to get what she wants—notice. It’s not really her goal. It’s clear that when she talks to Sebastian about her love of film, she would actually be perfectly happy just being a cog in the Hollywood wheel. She wants to star in other people’s stories but is largely uncomfortable with her own creations. It’s not surprising that her one-person play she puts isn’t shown in its entirety, because it was never what she was about.

Sebastian follows a similar direction, although his ultimate intentions end up being more clear Mia. Yes, he’s a talented pianist who endlessly talks about the importance of jazz. He claims his goal is to create a jazz club where people can enjoy the fine points of the genre. But every time he talks about it, seems more intent on creating a museum to house the legacy of jazz, rather than making his own musical path in the genre.

This point is driven home when his friend Keith (John Legend) convinces him to join his band. Soon, Sebastian couldn’t be more miserable, thumbing his nose at Keith’s notions of making “new” music. Like Mia, he doesn’t seem to be a creator either. Their relationship flounders and eventually comes apart.

Will they ever get back together? Will they ever break through to the other side and become innovative, creative performers in their own right? No spoiler alert here, but this movie musical does arrive at a poignant, piquantly 21st century conclusion.

“La La Land” isn’t really concerned with moving forward – and unintentionally may even subversively ask audiences if the movie musical can ever move forward. But instead of answering that question, it dances around what can make musicals beautiful. The film can and does hit wondrous heights of nostalgia, but it also pokes fun at moving away from those ideals and venturing into new territory.

“La La Land” ends up as a perfectly curated musical. It’s happy to exist as that kind of film. But frustratingly, it refuses to move away from the exercise in nostalgia that drives it.

Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer. He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years. Currently he lives in Vienna, VA. He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.