Here’s a movie, a real musical, that shows its heart in its first moments.
They depict a Los Angeles trope, traffic coming to a standstill on the Ventura freeway. But gradually and then infectiously, people get out of their cars to sing and dance to “Another Day of Sun.” As traffic resumes, the two lead characters glare briefly at each other from their cars.
The message of the scene is this: Yes, this is a fantasy, but why not go with it?
And go with it you should. “La La Land” is the first non-children’s movie musical in many years. (Yes, there was “Straight Outta Compton” in 2014, and there were reprises of “Mama Mia” and “Jersey Boys” from Broadway.) This is more than a story with songs. It is an almost magical story underpinned by musical themes.
It is a love story about Sebastian, a jazz pianist ,and Mia, an aspiring actress/playwright, each struggling to find a break. They support each other’s dreams even as tensions emerge between ambition and the relationship. There are other actors, good ones, in the story, but the focus is always on the two of them.
If there is a third character, it is Los Angeles, shown to great effect, especially at the pastel hours around dusk. LA is a difficult and challenging place, but anyone who has been gripped by the early pangs of love knows that the glow of those moments suffuses everything else in sight.
Ryan Gosling learned to play the piano for the show, and a choreographer taught Emma Stone and him how to dance. They’ll never replace Fred and Ginger and their singing voices weren’t dubbed, but they are better actors. The result is credible and charming.
Damien Chazelle, who wrote and directed, and Justin Hurwitz, the composer, are in their early 30s. In college, they introduced each other to jazz and movie musicals. According to interviews, they had wanted to make this movie for a long, long time. Said Chazelle:
— It was like, years of trying to get La La Land made in Hollywood, everyone saying not just “No,” but, like, “Please go away. We don’t want to hear about original musicals.” I did Whiplash out of necessity a little bit. Whiplash was a much smaller movie that I was able to actually put the money together for. But the whole time I was making Whiplash, I was hoping if this doesn’t entirely suck, it will give me some kind of calling card to make La La Land.
“Whiplash,” you may recall, was a very good 2014 film about a driven young jazz drummer and his abusive teacher. It won three Oscars — best supporting actor, best editing and sound editing — and seems to have given Chazelle the juice he needed to move on this project.
In fact, the budget for “La La Land” was small, $30 million, a trifle for something made in Los Angeles. I would have believed it if I heard that just the opening freeway scene, with music added later by a 95-piece orchestra, had cost that much.
Naturally, because it was not a Disney or superhero movie, it opened only in Los Angeles and New York. (In a country with 50+ college film programs, you’d think film distributors would give the rest of us a little more credit, or at least relief.) The reaction was excellent, and now the national rollout is under way.
When “La La Land” comes to your town, go see it. You’ll enjoy the experience.