By Michael Pisacano
Jacob Burns Film Center held an early screening of “Whiplash” director Damien Chazelle’s newest film, “La La Land” starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as lovers with their own artistic ambitions, followed by a Q&A with the director.
While “Whiplash” was a story that heavily featured music as a central focus of the story, “La La Land” is full-blown musical reminiscent of classic MGM movie musicals but with a contemporary approach. For as much as this is exactly the type of film that Hollywood loves to congratulate themselves for making, such as “The Artist”, “Hugo”, or “Hail Caesar”, “La La Land” manages to be more than just a nostalgic celebration of classic Hollywood film genres. It emulates the style and feeling of those old films, but uses that to subvert the types of storytelling cliches that these films have by incorporating more human realism into its characters’ relationship and situations, showing that life isn’t as simple as it is in those movies.
In attempting to revive the original musical genre for film, exciting and emotionally resonating musical numbers are the absolute key to success. The opening musical number “Another Day of Sun”, which was filmed on a Los Angeles highway that needed to be shut down for two full days in order to film the scene, establishes the grandiose nature of the filmmaker’s ambition to capture the bombastic, vibrant feeling of classic Hollywood musical numbers. Hundreds of extras gleefully sing and dance through a highway traffic jam, resulting in a dance sequence that elicits a more gratifying and exciting feeling than any big-budget superhero action scene could ever hope to achieve.
The musical numbers start big and extravagant, and gradually throughout the film become more subdued and interpersonal, culminating in one of the film’s final numbers “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” in which Stone delivers a powerfully emotional vocal performance. As we watch her character of Mia continually struggle to achieve any semblance of success, her final song is a beautiful ode to everyone who’s ever had their dreams crushed by reality and had the persistence to continue on.
Regardless of scale, each musical number in the film is treated with the same amount of technical significance. Chazelle utilizes minute-long takes throughout these sequences which adds an increased layer of theatricality to the musical numbers being performed, making them all the more mesmerizing to watch unfold, whether they be grand dance sequences in the streets or small personal songs in a bedroom.
While it’s highly unlikely that this film will contribute to an industry-wide revitalization of movie musicals, that in a way makes “La La Land” all that much more necessary and unique, which Chazelle should be commended for not only filling a long-dead niche, but for crafting a technically proficient and personal human story around it as well.
“La La Land” opens at the Jacob Burns Film Center on December 16.