Musicals have had an unexpected resurgence in pop culture lately, exemplified by the high profile release of director Damien Chazelle’s latest film “La La Land,” which unabashedly wears its musical heritage on its sleeve. Chazelle is no stranger to using music in his films: His last picture “Whiplash” stunned audiences with its emotionally powerful portrayal of a jazz musician dedicated to his craft and even pulled a few wins at the Oscars for its achievement. “La La Land,” however, doesn’t just focus on music as a theme. From the undeniably 50’s MGM-movie-inspired plot to the fully orchestrated soundtrack to characters always ready to burst into song, “La La Land” is a musical through and through.
The story is an old cliché transported to the 21st century: Mia (Emma Stone) is a struggling actress, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling jazz pianist, and they fall in love tap dancing in the moonlight of the City of Angels, Los Angeles.
Despite his evident nostalgia, Chazelle believes that the qualities of Golden Age-era musicals are essentially timeless. “I think, because the genre had a hard time after the 60’s, you know, it’s thought of as this sort of old-fashioned genre, but it’s really not,” he clarified. “There’s a defiance and a willfulness to break rules that’s inherent to the genre, this idea that emotions can justify breaking into song or dance that to me seems like it will always feel modern”.
Indeed, below all the 50’s stylings of the film, there is a simple and touching love story between Mia and Sebastian, one that Chazelle is careful not to let fall into mere cliché. Their relationship come to life because their faults are not whitewashed. And when they burst into song, or oftentimes in Sebastian’s case, piano melody, it reminds the audience about how music can sometimes convey what words struggle to: sorrow, longing or that indescribable sensation called love.
This careful balancing of the cliché and the new applies to the soundtrack as well. The composer of the film Justin Hurwitz had to walk a fine line between nostalgia and innovation to create the film’s expressive score. “It was our goal not to sound like an old fashioned musical, to sort of be inspired by what we love but also make something that sounds like its own thing,” he said.
Hurwitz’s score brilliantly aligns with the film’s main theme, the importance of embracing the past. “La La Land” seems to parallel Sebastian’s struggles to found a classical jazz club in an uncaring L.A. to the fate of film musicals today: increasingly obsolete to the general public, but well-loved by the few that take the time to remember them.
In fact, Chazelle doesn’t see much of a difference between classical musicals and jazz. “They’re fundamentally jazz movies: they swang, they’re syncopated, which allows you to dance a certain way, but they’re orchestrated, like Tchaikovsky.” Much of the music of “La La Land” occupies that intersection.
The stellar plot and music don’t overshadow the less-noticed areas of film construction, such as the color design. “(We were) all inspired by the old technicolor movies … because (that) was a time in moviemaking where color felt fresh,” Chazelle said. So throughout “La La Land,” Chazelle, in cahoots with costume designer Mary Zophres and lead set designer Kevin Cross, fills every nook and cranny of the frame with eye-popping color, even going as far as to turn the night sky a deep, saturated blue. The cumulative effect is dazzling, as if you were back in the days where color was a novelty and not a guarantee. Like musical motifs, certain colors — green, blue, red — recur in the film to represent emotions and characters in a bold, in-your-face approach not often seen these days.
What stops “La La Land” from being mired in cliché is that in-your-face self-confidence that makes 50’s Hollywood movie magic seem, well, magical again. While the direction, score and color palette reference the past, they never directly imitate it, because they don’t have to. All of those components add up to tell a boy-meets-girl story that seems very contemporary and yet timeless, all at once. It reminds us that, sometimes, you have to pull from the past to better tell a story about the present.
Contact Adesh Thapliyal [email protected].