Last night I watched one of the best musical films ever made: Singing in the Rain. The switch from silent films to talkies, the focus of the movie, made musicals possible. To date ten musicals have won the Best Picture Oscar. Now, with La La Land there’s a chance it will become eleven.
La La Land works both as a neo-musical as well as an homage to the genre. In Singing in the Rain, you have the meet-cute device of Gene Kelly jumping into Debbie Reynolds’ car, then Debbie jumping out of a cake in front of Kelly. La La Land gives these a decidedly modern-day twist – Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) first sort-of meet during a minor moment of road rage, and it takes two more incidents before they finally get together.
Mia and Sebastian have both come to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams. Mia wants to be an actress, though the closest she’s gotten to the business is working as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who’s reduced to playing background music at a restaurant. When he slips in some of his original compositions, the owner (J.K. Simmons in a sparkling cameo) fires him on the spot. His dream is to open his own club where he and others can play jazz, the most American of all musical styles. Fate brings the two dreamers together as they pursue their dreams, but can the relationship survive success?
La La Land was a passion project for writer/director Damien Chazelle, who also explored the dedication necessary to succeed as a musician in his 2014 film Whiplash. In the era of Singing in the Rain studios turned out dozens of Hollywood-style musicals every year, but now if you eliminate animated films you might get one or two a year, most of them adaptations of Broadway shows. Since 2010 you have Les Miserables, Rock of Ages, Annie, and Into the Woods, with the middle two being rightly forgettable. La La Land embraces the break-into-song-or-dance motif of the classics, while grafting it into the modern world. The opening production number is staged during a traffic jam. Chazelle lets his camera follow the action in long, flowing takes.
The score by Justin Hurwitz, with song lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, is gorgeous, and accounts for three of the film’s 14 Oscar nominations: Best Score and two Best Song noms (“City of Stars” and “Audition,” which becomes the climax of the film). It’s also an excellent argument for the place of jazz in music today, as well as a real introduction to the genre for people these days who casually say they don’t like jazz.
A personal kudo to Ryan Gosling for learning the proper fingering for the music he plays. I don’t know if he actually plays the piano or if he just fakes it incredibly well, but Chazelle doesn’t cheat as many movies do by not showing the keyboard. That’s a pet peeve for me, kind of like Neil DeGrasse Tyson being upset when a film shows the incorrect alignment of stars in the sky. It’s not something most people will notice, but if you are one of those people it becomes a major factor. Gosling, though, nails it.
I don’t know what will happen Oscar night. Both Stone and Gosling have been nominated for their roles, and deservedly so. They have a definite chemistry on screen. This is now the third time they’ve been paired, along with Crazy. Stupid. Love. and Gangster Squad. Could they be the next Hepburn/Tracy? I wouldn’t mind that. But their categories have strong competition with Denzel Washington, Casey Affleck, Andrew Garfield, Natalie Portman, Ruth Negga, and living legend Meryl Streep all in the running.
If people want the Hollywood ending, Gosling and Stone would walk away with their golden statues. But you don’t always get a Hollywood ending, and real life is more complex, messier, and usually more satisfying.
Thankfully La La Land has both options covered.