This updated tribute to the classic Hollywood film musicals like Singing in the Rain has proven to be an absolute cultural sensation, and, along with the success of Hamilton, has done much to make musicals far more relevant to the mainstream culture than they had been in decades. It features a heartwrenchingly bittersweet love story of two idealistic dreamers with high artistic aspirations that wind up becoming each others’ muses, only to part ways when their dreams take them in different directions.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the basic, fundamental plot outline of the show is very similar to that of the movie and Broadway musical Once. The thing that makes these two works distinct from each other is that, while Once is relentlessly naturalistic, with its diagetic songs and ultra-subtle characterization, La La Land draws on a mix of high cinematic ‘Magical Realism’ and the fanciful tone of the ‘Golden Age’ Hollywood musicals to create a rhapsodic musical fantasy.
The influence of the classic movie musicals titles this film was intended to homage is evident in almost every element of the film, but it particularly pervades the dancing. From the Astaire-and-Rogers feel of the I’m-not-falling-in-love-honest-I’m-not duet “A Lovely Night”, to a climactic dream ballet straight out of An American In Paris showing the life the two main characters might have had together if things had gone differently, this film definitely dances like movie musicals used to before the 1960s.
The primary stylistic difference between those films and this one lies in the nature of the score. The lyrics to the songs were penned by overnight Broadway legends Pasek and Paul, and I commend them…they captured exactly the kind of heartrending hyperromanticism this story calls for. But the actual vocal music itself is really just an extension of Justin Hurwitz’s jazz-influenced instrumental score that pervades the whole film. This isn’t how they wrote in the ‘classic’ era…back then, they generally wrote songs and then worked backwards from them to create an instrumental score…but it works, and helps give the film a genuinely modern feel that makes it more than just a genre pastiche.
Ryan Gosling gives a fine performance is the male lead, with a kind of quiet intensity and low-key charisma that is very appropriate for his character, but the most impressive aspect of his performance is his piano playing, which was apparently done entirely by Gosling himself and which is absolutely mind-blowing, especially coming from someone who reportedly learned to play just months before the movie was filmed. Emma Stone in the female lead gives the most irresistible performance we’ve seen in a movie musical in decades, beyond adorable and breathtakingly sincere, especially in her monumentally moving eleven-O’clock number, “The Fools Who Dream”.
The other performance of exceptional note is singer John Legend as Gosling’s foil. He represents the modernization of Jazz that Gosling’s character defiantly resists, and it’s to the movie’s credit that they allow him to have genuinely convincing arguments (like when he points out that the Jazz greats Gosling worships were themselves revolutionaries, not traditionalists), and give him an absolutely blinding musical number to represent his preferred style of music. “Start a Fire” was written by an entirely different team of songwriters (including Legend himself) than the rest of the score, to give it the visibly out-of-place feeling that its dramatic function requires. It’s a phenomenal Jazz-Funk showstopper, and might be the best song that Legend has ever recorded…no small achievement for the man who sang “Ordinary People” and “All of Me”.
This is one of those rare pieces of cinematic alchemy where every individual element works perfectly and compliments every other aspect. As brilliant as all the artistic components I’ve described so far are in themselves, the film is still a million times more than the sum of its parts, so there’s really no describing its full greatness of paper. I’m obviously not the first to lavishly praise its achievements, and I certainly won’t be the last…this film is clearly in it for the long haul, and will undoubtedly be one of tomorrow’s classics…but this is one work that can’t really be fully described in any review. To really appreciate the impact that this one-of-a-kind-masterpiece has in the moment, you have to actually see it, from beginning to end, so I suggest you all make arrangements to do that as soon as possible.