A commonplace sentiment for many a moviegoer is an aversion to the musical. Being unable to buy into the reality of a world where character break into song is a problem many seem unable to get over. Therefore, when a musical manages to break that trend, it’s worth looking at how it made the unwilling accept its world.
One of the key’s to La La Land’s runaway success is right after its opener. The high optimism of the dancing gives away to cynical comedy about L.A traffic jams (and the decorum thereof). This is our first scene with Mia Dolan (Emma Watson), where we watch her take a telephone call on the road, only for that to be revealed as her preparing for an audition. She is an actor, the performer, what the movie will brand as the fool who dares to dream. And in a film where the reality and the dream so comically clash, those fools find a way to ride between the two, and bring the audience along with them.
That is the central idea behind the movie, and the couple of Mia and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) right down to the double meaning of the title. It’s a film in which skies are revealed to be film sets and faces posters. Where the sets of ordinary bars and room are such that when lights fade out to a spotlight on a piano it doesn’t feel out of place. It’s also a film where the chasing of the dream can lead to insanity, to fractured relationships and people. The Hollywood romanticism of Mia and Sebastian is a by-product of ego and selfishness, and the movie is unafraid to point this out whilst not condemning them. This is partly where the Ryan Gosling “white jazz saviour” narrative has come from (a conversation that at this point bores me, and feels appropriately discussed in the film itself), but it is also what shapes the musical numbers into feeling more character driven.
It can also lead to apprehension of the film itself. There is a need to impress early on that feels as insecure as the characters. Many of directors Damien Chazelle’s impressive long takes can feel unnecessary, particularly when it hides the faces of actors and the choreography of the dancing itself, for the sake of visual flash. It wants to be the next “big” musical, and will make the allusions necessary for anyone to make those connections. Many of the talking points between the character’s don’t have much more value than reference comedy: a Gene Kelly poster here, the set of Casablanca there and a Hoagy Carmichael stool to look at them from . It’s an embrace of Old Hollywood nostalgia that feels refreshing in a current climate (as did Hail, Caesar at the beginning of 2016) but also an end in and of itself.
Seb gives the movie’s own argument to this reaction: “who gives a fuck?” This is a good enough excuse. But a movie like Umbrellas of Cherbourg – the most obvious La La Land reference point – used the traditions of the Hollywood musical to talk about a contemporary time and place. La La Land reflects very specific people and tastes: the fool who dares to dream. For now the film has clearly penetrated beyond those people, but I wonder how long that will last.
This is why the film reference with the most weight is Rebel Without A Cause, the movie where classic Hollywood met teen angst (and new acting techniques) in LA itself. It makes sense that the most romantic scene would take place after that point, at a location from that film, which in turn elevates the character and storytelling from that point. This leads into the spectacular finale that revisits and elevates everything that came before it. Between this and the finale for Whiplash, the La La Land that is Hollywood should come to Damien Chazelle for its endings. In that respect, he is no fool at all.