The 2016 Rewind
Our new daily column about the many important films of 2016 kicks off with Damien Chazelle’s meticulously sweetened musical.
There can be an inauthenticity to charm, especially in a colorful, harmonious, perky musical such as Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. There are times when the handsome can become too handsome. The quirky can be too thick. And the bombast can be overwhelming. It’s like eating a piece of cake that has too much frosting. At first you’re delighted by the sweetness, but by the end you are sick to your stomach.
La La Land certainly begins with the sweet, creamy frosting that captures our attention. A scene in which denizens of modern day Los Angeles turn a traffic jam into a tap dance jam, singing to the heavens the virtues of living under too much sunshine. By the time we meet our soon-to-be-lovers – played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone – there’s already been plenty of toe-tapping and hip-swaying. Chazelle’s ode to mid 20th century musicals begins with a rainbow burst of tempo and for a lot of the film’s first two acts, there’s no relent in any of it. Even in its quieter moments, La La Land celebrates the charming expressionism of its two leads. And while they sing and dance their way into each other’s hearts, they are always one look away from stealing ours.
Part of its charm is that it exists in a cleaner, more colorful idealized version of Los Angeles. As if the entire city existed on a studio backlot, La La Land prances around in perfectly lit hyper-reality. It’s all part of its timeless aesthetic. That is until someone’s iPhone ringtone brings us out of the daze. Chazelle is content leaving us in this daze as long as possible, as that’s when the film soars. But this is often where a lesser film might overdo the sweetness, poisoning the experience with thick, sugary schmaltz. To go over this edge turns joyousness into inauthenticity. An inauthentic experience becomes tired or worse, annoying.
La La Land maintains its authenticity with moments that feel almost improvisational. I’ll give you an example. During one sequence in the middle an early montage showing Gosling and Stone’s characters going through the early stages of dating, we slow down for a moment in a jazz club. He’s up there playing piano, a consummate rebel artist, she’s down in the crowd happily dancing along. Unlike some of the earlier sequences – like the sunset-soaked dance number they share in the trailer – there’s an odd rhythm to Stone dancing by herself in a crowd of people. At one point I’m certain she does the robot to a jazz drum riff. All this is to say that there’s a rough, improvisational feel to what I’m sure was a carefully choreographed sequence. But it feels authentic. In her liberated state, she is the most charming creature we’ve ever seen. She’s using her moment to playfully connect with her costar. But more importantly, she’s charming is in an intimate, unencumbered way. In that moment, we can see the value of Damien Chazelle’s meticulously crafted story. He has both lifted his musical beyond the basic constructs of reality (there’s a number that involves some floating) and kept it grounded in something that almost resembles the real world.
This is the magic of La La Land: it’s plenty sweet, but not over-frosted. And in their way, even though their just two beautiful, talented people being beautiful and talented, Stone and Gosling feel fully formed in their roles. It’s not a story you or I could live, but it’s close enough to feel natural, even if it might have been manufactured in a charm factory.