Credit: Dale Robinette/Lionsgate ©
Stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling perform for Damien Chazelle's camera
Damien Chazelle's "La La Land" is an odd film of significant charm and flashes of brilliance. It is being sold, rather bravely, as a musical and I reference its courage because the musical genre hasn't been appreciated, understood or desired, for several decades now, by the moviegoing public or even critics (who one would expect to have open, adventurous minds).
Actually, it should be noted that "La La Land" is a musical occasionally. Sometimes, it remembers that it's a song-and-dance film and, at other times, it seems to forget. That's part of its laid-back, unrushed, fizzy charm. And this curious quality - seemingly both deliberate and dreamy - is what makes it uncommon among modern films, musical or otherwise.
Chazelle works with only six songs here - which seems like barely enough to carry a self-promoted "musical" - but he's creative with them, playfully extending two or three into lengthy productions while limiting others with a scratch-pad casualness and brevity. Sometimes, only a few bars are sung.
His film has been embraced almost unanimously by the critics, deservedly so, but for reasons that have little to do with the movie itself. It's been compared by more than one reviewer to "Singin' in the Rain," which is odd given that the two films have little in common apart from the fact that they both contain song and dance performed against a movietown backdrop.
"Singin' in the Rain," co-directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly and released by MGM in 1952, has become the easy, rather convenient go-to musical for contemporary critics, even though one suspects that these same critics probably would have dismissed it as inconsequential in '52.
Also: "La La Land" can't be realistically compared to any American musical because, well, it isn't really American. It's French (although spoken and sung in English, of course). It's inspiration is the work of the late French filmmaker Jacques Demy, its specific template clearly being Demy's 1967 creamy sundae-of-a-musical, "The Young Girls of Rochefort" ("Les demoiselles de Rochefort"), featuring songs by Michel Legrand. Both move to a light, lilting jazz score, and "La La Land" also pays homage to Legrand with orchestrations that are lush with violins, flutes, accordians, concertinas and xzylophones.
The French musical is something of an acquired taste, not always easy to consume and enjoy. "The Young Girls of Rochfort," a rare exception, goes down relatively easy, but I always found Demy's much-admired 1964 film, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" ("Les parapluies de Cherbourg"), a challenge to sit through. Although "La La Land" follows the contours of its inspirations, it has none of the archness of its French counterparts.
Somehow, Chazelle manages to surmount that problem (although certain moviegoers, especially non-fans of the musical, may still be annoyed).
His sprawling opening number, "Another Day of Sun," choreographed by Mandy Moore on the Los Angeles I-405 Freeway and performed by an ensemble of 100 singers and dancers, seems gratuitous and unrelated to the film that follows, but it is absolutely crucial to setting its tone:
We're not in Los Angeles anymore, Toto. We're in Rochfort.
The plot that kicks in is about two show-business careerists who meet cute (well, sort of) on the 405, and the film then seesaws back and forth between the ambitions of the girl, a hopeful actress named Mia (Emma Stone), and those of the boy, a frustrated musician named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), while also fooling around with chronology as it also goes back and forth in time.
To make ends meet, Mia works as a barista in the café on the Warner Bros. backlot, where one the buildings has the word "Parapluies" written on it, a reference of course to "Les parapluies de Cherbourg," whose plot is echoed in Mia and Sebastian's knotty relationship.
"La La Land" doesn't completely ignore the American film musical, memorably quoting two. Sebastian's scenes performing in various small, dimly-lighted, smokey clubs subtly evoke the moment when Judy Garland sings "The Man That Got Away" in George Cukor's "A Star Is Born" (Warner Bros., 1955), while an elaborate, painterly fantasy sequence late in the movie reimagines what can only be the dream ballet in the Vincente Minnelli-Gene Kelly collaboration, "An American in Paris" (MGM, 1951).
All of the film, but especially the fantasy sequence, has been given a luscious glow by cinematographer Linus Sandgrew. In his New Yorker review, Anthony Lane commented, "It looks so delicious that I genuinely couldn’t decide whether to watch it or lick it." Sandgrew employed the old CinemaScope process for this oaccasion and Los Angeles has never looked more inviting. I feel precisely the same way about the movie itself.
FYI: Catherine Deneuve stars in three of Jacques Demy's musicals. In addition to the aforementioned "Les parapluies de Cherbourg" and "Les demoiselles de Rochefort" (which also starred Deneuve's late sister, Françoise Dorléac, and Gene Kelly), there's 1970's "Donkey Skin" ("Peau d'âne"). Demy also directed Yves Montand in 1988's marvelously titled backstage musical, "Three Tickets for the 26th" ("Trois places pour le 26").
Notes in Passing: Given the role that Warner Bros. plays in the film (Nicholas Ray's 1955 "Rebel Without a Cause" is also referenced), it's a bit of a surprise that Warners didn't snap up the film's distribution rights.
Lionsgate is releasing "La La Land."
Also, two - count 'em - two soundtrack albums from "La La Land" have been released - one devoted to the film's song score and one to its background music. This isn't a first, however. David Byrne's new-style film musical from three decades ago, ”True Stories” (Warner Bros., 1986), also had an album of mood music and another with songs.
The latter, however, was not from the soundtrack. All the songs on it are performed by Byrne and The Talking Heads. The actor-singers in the film included John Goodman and Annie McEnroe. Byrne's film remains new-style even 30 years later. It's terrific and worth seeking out. That said, I'm still waiting for an authentic soundtrack album from it.
Well, one can hope, right?
Finally, a delayed added postscript: I've been remiss. I forgot to mention the wonderful documentary made by Jacques Demy's widow, filmmaker Agnès Varda - "Les demoiselles ont eu 25 ans" ("The Young Girls Turn 25") - which details the remaining cast (including Deneuve) and crew of "The Young Girls of Rochfort" returning to the town of Rochfort to celebrate their movie 25 years later.