“La La Land” is deceptively innovative. It evokes classic musicals while advancing the genre; it’s both old-fashioned and modern.
Damien Chazelle makes his daring intention clear from the start: Drivers stuck on a crowded highway ramp get out of their cars to sing and dance in a dazzling fireworks display. When the music stops, they get into their cars and the film’s future cursed lovers look at each other for the first time. They do not swoon; Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) returns the bird to distracted Mia (Emma Stone) before walking away.
The traffic and its Prius are quite modern; so, too, his reaction. The fact that she’s clearly an actress preparing for an audition suggests that we may be heading into familiar territory soon.
Sure enough, visual allusions to classic musicals soon appear on screen. Mia and her aspiring actresses wear candy-colored dresses similar to those Catherine Deneuve wore in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”; her apartment looks like a Technicolor throwback to a decade before. And the story itself, about dreamers trying to be successful in Hollywood, is reminiscent of classic musicals such as “Singin ‘in the Rain”.
Chazelle deviates from musical standards by filming in real city streets rather than on studio stages. He has filmed in familiar locations in the greater Los Angeles area, from Griffith Park to Hermosa Beach. In addition, he recorded some of the actual vocals on location, adding another logistical hurdle to the production.
“Part of the goal was not just to shoot LA, but shoot LA for LA,” Chazelle explains. “So if there is a dance number on a freeway, it must be a real freeway. And then we recorded the elements of the “Brigadoon” style soundstage for the final footage of the film. “
Chazelle’s shooting style gave “La La Land” a looser indie feel than the great predecessors of the big, brighter studios. Gosling and Stone attract enough clogs without appearing too polished; their song and dance routines correspond to their future characters.
By the end of the film, the two found their way as artists. Jazz purist Sebastian has gone beyond the cover bands and pop music that tormented him, while pragmatic Mia triumphs beyond his dreams. The cinema itself has become more elaborate.
Like her characters, Chazelle venerates the past. But he is not slavishly devoted to it.
By merging the retro and the modern, he re-energized a genre that sorely needed it. Musicals were once a staple of the big screen, but in recent years they’ve been overlooked for more on-trend dishes. Blockbuster musicals have tended to be stage adaptations a la “Chicago” or “Mamma Mia!” with performances of “Pitch Perfect” songs or grind-’em-ups like “Magic Mike” filling the void of song and dance.
But truly original musicals where the characters sing and dance out of sheer joie de vivre have been rare. “La La Land” could inspire more filmmakers to take this genre a step further.
(Tim Gray contributed to this report.)