Todd VanDerWerff is at the Toronto International Film Festival, where many of the movies that will dominate our upcoming conversations and the awards season are playing. He will be filing daily dispatches on the ones he sees. For more information on TIFF and the film festival circuit, read our explainer.
There are so many things the new movie musical La La Land does that should be absolutely enervating.
Take, for instance, its willful, stubborn nostalgia for bygone eras, like old Hollywood and the Jazz Age, and its occasional nods toward the thought that change isn’t just threatening but actively bad. Or the way it seems, at times, constructed out of other movies. It’s sort of the film equivalent of a guy who thinks wearing a hat and drinking lots of whiskey makes him seem interesting.
But my goodness is La La Land magical. Its flaws constantly threaten to consume it, but the film keeps tap-dancing on those flaws’ heads, staying just a few steps ahead of the claws grabbing for its feet. It’s a love letter to Los Angeles. It’s a brightly colored explosion of style and verve. And it’s a surprisingly wise, bittersweet movie about relationships that disguises itself as a confection.
But above all else, Damien Chazelle’s newest film is about an age-old Hollywood theme: the clash between romanticism and realism, between an idealized past and a possible future. And that puts it in line with a completely different Hollywood tradition.
Lots of directors have followed up their breakthrough films with attempts to revive the old Hollywood musical; few have succeeded
Throughout the 1970s, it seemed the cool thing to do was try to follow up a breakthrough film with an old-school musical, one filled with razzle-dazzle. Martin Scorsese tried with New York, New York. It took Francis Ford Coppola a little longer, when he followed up Apocalypse Now with One From the Heart. Peter Bogdanovich followed up several ’70s successes — most notably Last Picture Show — with the notorious 1975 flop At Long Last Love, a blatant attempt to ape 1930s musicals.
But even longer is the list of directors who’ve tried to resurrect the old Hollywood musical, a list that might have Steven Spielberg as its leader. Despite being the most powerful director in Hollywood for decades upon decades, Spielberg has never managed to launch the musical film he’s dreamed of, despite several rumored projects.
And yet, for all of these directors’ storied careers, the films that actually get made are usually deeply flawed. (Only Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, one of the best movies ever made, escapes this fate.) The old Hollywood musical requires a complete rejection of cynicism and an embrace of sincerity, two qualities that are hard to fake. So most of these movies try to actively split the difference — they’re about the gap between cynicism and sincerity and how hard it is to bridge. But this often leads to deeply bipolar films, trapped between moods and struggling to reconcile themselves.
And to be honest, Chazelle, the director of Whiplash, didn’t seem like the guy to beat this trend. Whiplash is a very good movie, but it’s also a movie steeped in a kind of dark machismo, a very literal toxic masculinity. It doesn’t have a romantic bone in its body, to the degree that its one major female character is a girlfriend who essentially exits the movie about halfway through because the characters no longer have room for her.
But Chazelle’s solution to the old cynicism/sincerity problem is ingenious: He splits the movie into two. Its first half is a candy-colored musical treat, a swooning paean to falling in love, performed by two actors (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling) with excellent chemistry. (In my notes, I scrawled, “JUST KISS ALREADY.”)
The second half is the inverse of that — a realistic reappraisal of romanticism. You can even see the scene when the film flips on its ear, the color leaches out of it just a bit, and the characters turn colder to each other.
But they never stop singing. Because here’s the catch: Neither half of La La Land would work if the film weren’t a musical.
La La Land unironically honors the first rule of musicals: Sing when words won’t do
The old maxim about musicals is that the music takes over when dialogue can’t adequately capture the characters’ emotions. The heart swells in time with the strings. The words drop out. The only way to express all this feeling is to belt it out in song.
One of the reasons an ironic musical is so hard — though not impossible — to make work is that it can’t lean on this idea to “explain” why the characters are singing. So most modern attempts couch their musical moments in an idea of why the music is happening — usually because the characters are performers of some sort. (Chicago, with its imagined musical performance numbers, is probably the most famous example.) That’s all well and good, but it makes it harder to have the songs stand in for the emotions the heart dare not speak.
Now, it’s not impossible to combine the “here is why the characters sing” safety net of these musicals with the ultra-romanticism of old-school musicals. (Moulin Rouge and Once both manage this blend nicely.) But it often leads to films that feel too arch or hesitant.
La La Land lets viewers know early on that it’s going to play by the old rules. The very first shot of the movie is an unbroken take on a crowded Los Angeles freeway where a young woman begins to sing, at first humming along with the radio, but then leaving it behind for her own tune. Others join her, exiting their essentially parked cars to sing and dance about their Hollywood dreams.
It’s both a dazzling calling card for the film (one it struggles to match for a while) and a gauntlet of sorts: If you can’t get with scenes like this, then maybe you and this movie shouldn’t be friends. And in the movie’s swooning first half, it calibrates the musical sequences so they occur when its two protagonists are slowly but surely falling in love.
What’s trickier is finding a way to build musical numbers around such relatively muted goals as “managing expectations” and “giving up on your dreams.” The second half of the film uses more musical montage and the sorts of performance-driven numbers reminiscent of a Chicago or Moulin Rouge, but it also has one last trick up its sleeve, another big, swooning number about all of life’s disappointments that I dare not spoil because it’s the film’s best scene.
In that sense, then, the film is able to use its musical numbers (and the careful calibration of how music and film have worked hand in hand for decades) to mirror the characters’ inner journeys from swoon to collapse, all without really calling attention to what it’s doing. It’s very skilled.
The movie’s screenplay could use work, though
La La Land has flaws, and they’re especially easy to see once you’re out of the theater.
Gosling’s character, a jazz pianist named Sebastian who’s obsessed with the art form’s height, would probably be intensely irritating if he were played by anyone other than Gosling. And Stone’s character, an actress named Mia, struggles to gain dimension for much of the film, though not for lack of Stone’s layered, lovely performance. (The actress and Chazelle get to that place, but the writing for Mia flirts with cliché throughout.)
La La Land’s biggest flaw, though, is its screenplay, the second half of which seems to be composed of a bunch of pages with a little Post-It note stuck in the corner that says, “This scene goes here.”
In particular, a fight between Sebastian and Mia arrives too abruptly and leaves just as quickly. It’s seemingly just there because Chazelle needed the two to fight.
But honestly, you probably won’t care about most of the above when you’re watching the movie, especially as it navigates out of its trickier portions into a conclusion that goes for broke on ambition and, to my mind, pulls everything off. (The ending is by far the thing most people are arguing about when it comes to this film, however.)
Writing a musical about the clash between how easy it is to sing and dance in those old movies and how hard it is to do anything in the real world is an old, old idea. But where others struggled, and where Chazelle sings, is in remembering that the emotions worth singing about don’t have to just be the happy ones. Disappointment and sadness and melancholy can feel just as powerful as love — and when the music swells, they can take over, too.
La La Land opens December 2 in limited release.