Sunday, December 25, 2016

La La Land Successfully Updates A Genre

La La Land is a rare bird, a genre musical film— refreshing and uplifting, sincere and happy and melancholy, a much-needed anodyne for the darkness and cynicism of late cinema. It tells the story of the meeting of two young people, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) the musician and Mia (Emma Stone) the struggling actress. Both are working marginal jobs, waiting for their moment to break into the careers they dream of. When they meet (after a few hilarious missteps) love begins to bloom— and in true musical manner, their emotions soar in the form of song and dance. This is what is wonderful about musicals: in their universe emotions cannot be contained by prosaic reality. They require the characters spontaneously burst into song. Narrative reality breaks loose and people levitate into a magical space where people dance in the middle of traffic jams and fly into the stars of a planetarium.

But it’s not all just a cinematic heaven of singing and lyrical passages of fancy: the eternal rival of romance and career soon takes over.  Mia and Seb inspire each other to take risks, work hard and strive to make their personal dreams come true. The cost of pushing career first soon becomes the central conflict of La La Land, which leads to one of the most soaring and beautiful and melancholy and moving conclusions I have seen in a modern film.

The third character own this film— the namesake— is it’s wonderful, make-believe Los Angeles: Angel’s Flight, Mulholland Drive, Griffith Park, palm trees and stately SoCal architecture under an endless blue sky or deep blue night. It’s a fun, vibrant place full of artist, actors, strivers and dreamers. It’s been too easy in films of late to see LA as some of late-capitalist hellscape (see Training Day): It’s refreshing to remind all of us that LA is a place where people still go to try to make their dreams come true.

Director Damien Chazelle’s last film was Whiplash, a sort of crazy stalker film set in the world of jazz music about an earnest drummer and his insane instructor (J. K. Simmons, who has a lovely cameo in this film).  Jazz plays heavily and strangely in La La Land as well: Sebastian is a young man obsessed with the world of jazz: he has posters of jazz greats in his apartments, Hoagy Carmichael’s piano stool and longs to open a real jazz club in Los Angeles. There are plenty of kids these days who passionately love alls sorts of dead or marginal forms of music: it never becomes clear of Seb is sincere or just really good at affecting his love of the genre.

"A Lovely Night" on location.
The most remarkable number— a real masterpiece of a shot— is “A Lovely Night,” which occurs near the beginning of the film. After a party in the Hollywood Hills where they accident meet up, Seb is helping Mia look for her car. They break into song and dance at a scenic overlook, the wash of lights in the LA basin below. The scene, which goes from real-world to singing to dance to tap-dance (!) is shot at the real location and very specific time: PAST “Magic Hour,” just after sunset, when the warm glow of the sunset underscores a deepening dark blue sky. The set lighting is low as to illuminate the actors and still leave the sunset and sky bright. This scene not only highlights the considerable singing acting talents of of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, it shows off cutting-edge film technology: fine-grained, fast film stock (La La Land was mostly shot on 35mm film), fast anamorphic lenses and the latest light, agile camera packages. Were this a Golden Age musical, this shot would have happened on a soundstage. But instead, it is one long, six-minute shot at a very narrow, specific time of day. This makes it breathtaking on several levels.

Another nice PAST-magic hour shot.
La La Land is in many ways an updated classic movie, a pastiche of the conventions, narratives and styles of Hollywood musicals. It is not a breakthrough in and of itself: this isn’t pure storytelling and cinematic innovation like Mad Max: Fury Road was. It takes the best elements of a great genre, updates the sensibilities to contemporary morés and makes it all fresh and unexpected again. There’s a little Vincente Minelli here, some Gene Kelley there, a little Jaques Demy, Even a bit of Ross Hunter/ Doris Day and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Another girl in magical old Los Angeles, dreaming
of acting fame. Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr.
Given all these obvious movie-history references it was then very, very strange that while La La Land played, the place I kept going to for a visual and stylistic reference was… David Lynch. I COULD NOT STOP thinking: “This is a light-hearted musical version of Mulholland Dr. (2001).” It shares a lot of the same qualities as Lynch’s masterpiece: striking cinematography filled with shots of strong primary colors; an abiding love of Los Angeles locations, show business, actors and the mechanics of filmmaking; flights of surrealism; and intimate close-ups, bursting with emotion. These films are on entirely different missions— light, uplifting musical surrealism versus a surreal dive into the darkest parts of the id— but there is a common thread as well, in look and feel.

I may well be mistaken and La La Land may have been released in the
original CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.55:1. But that's not how I saw it
in Redwood City: they couldn't even manage to mask the screen right.
And, sorry to say, I have to disagree with both the opening title card and Dana Stevens’ review and report that La La Land is NOT in CinemaScope. That specific film format was proprietary for to 20th Century-Fox and Bausch and Lomb, who standardized the elements of anamorphic cinematography. CinemaScope lenses were not much used past 1960: these early models had distortion problems that caused actors’ faces to widen unnaturally: “CinemaScope Mumps,” they called it. Panavision fixed this problem by re-arranging lens elements to minimize distortion. This film is actually in Panavision: they used Series C lenses to shoot it. But this is a quibble: the widescreen compositions are so lovely and the mise-en-scene is so well developed and rich, it’s worth another viewing just to look for visual clues and symmetries.

If you love Hollywood genres old and new, this is a must-see.

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