Every few years a movie comes along that tries to reinvent something in Hollywood. The last big reinvention was The Artist, which tried to revive silent films, or at least the concept of silent films and old Hollywood. These novelty films are often lauded for simply that, their novelty. While I HUGELY value originality, I am all in if a film can strike just the right amount of novelty – I still think Drop Dead Fred, a film about the return of a childhood invisible friend, is hilarious. However, once the novelty wears off, not all of these films stand the test of time. Thankfully La La Land, a new musical written and directed by Damien Chazelle, has a strong base in which the novelty component merely supports the central story.
Mia (Emma Stone) is a struggling actress in Hollywood, who drives a hybrid, and serves coffee on the Warner Bros.’s lot between auditions. She lives with 3 other actresses and is desperately trying to get cast in anything, often by networking at boring parties. When her hybrid is towed after one of these parties, walking home through LA (do people really walk in LA?), she hears an amazing jazz piano coming from a restaurant and walks in. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) has just been fired for not playing the requisite Jingle Bells. Mia and Sebastian have a few meetings where they figure out they don’t like each other (but really do)…you can guess a lot of the rest.
Happily, the film uses music throughout to tell the story and comment on the world of the film. The opening number, about being happy to be in grid lock in LA, is a beautiful commentary on the traffic, sunshine, and the general Hollywood nature of Los Angeles. When music IS the story, we see Sebastian trying to be a serious jazz pianist and open a jazz bar to play the music he loves. Jazz plays an important role within both the overall story (young people don’t like jazz, filmgoers don’t like musicals) and within Mia and Sebastian’s relationship.
By far, my favorite part of La La Land is the overall look of this movie. While it’s ostensibly set today (hybrids, baristas, etc.) there’s also a very strong feeling throughout of “old Hollywood” with sweeping views, classic bars, dresses and suits. But there’s more to it, particularly in the costumes. There’s a richness to all of the colors. In a scene with Mia’s roommates, each of the girls is wearing a saturated primary color (red, blue, green, yellow), and it feels a little strange (since it’s early in the film), but when that color palate and the general richness of color runs throughout the film it makes you see the very deliberate nature of all of these choices.
I really liked this film. Gosling and Stone are excellent actors, very good dancers, pretty good singer, and thankfully they have a very strong overall story to work with. I hope the look of the film, and the fact that there’s singing and dancing, doesn’t turn people away. La La Land is strong enough to surpass its novelty and create something truly unique.