Cinema is the most popular magic trick in the world. With notable – and sometimes remarkable – exceptions the fundamentals of narrative filmmaking involve coercing the audience into forgetting that what they’re watching isn’t real; that there are cameras, a director, a best boy grip just metres from the action. We call editing ‘the invisible art’ because if it’s successful, most (there are those remarkable exceptions) cuts go unnoticed in the name of the illusion of reality. But then there are musicals, which buck this pursuit of immersion by having characters break out into song and dance, dismantling the illusion of possibility and drawing attention to the truth of film – it’s all fake.
Musicals aren’t as popular as they once were, at least not in Western society, and that artificiality might have something to do with it. Realism has prevailed. The 1930s through to the 1950s are generally considered to be the golden age of the film musical. That’s the era that engendered such classics as Meet Me In St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz and Singing In The Rain and embraced the showy make-believe that musicals are known for most. It’s also undoubtedly the era of cinema that has influenced writer/director Damien Chazelle in the production his new film, La La Land. I might have said that they don’t make films like La La Land anymore, except I’m not sure whether they’ve ever been made quite like this.
Chazelle has managed to do something I previously thought may never be achieved in film and that is successfully and seamlessly amalgamate antiquated Hollywood sensibilities with modern filmmaking into one cooperative whole. Michel Hazanavicius did something along the same lines with his film The Artist, but I’m inclined to believe that Chazelle has had the tougher job. As wonderful as The Artist was, there is an element of gimmick to that film that isn’t present in La La Land. There’s no nudge or wink to the audience. Chazelle has created a classic film musical and imbued it with sixty years of cinematic hindsight. It’s not always harmoniously executed, but when it is, La La Land is something totally unique, comprised of cinematic tropes that are some of the oldest in film history. This isn’t old meets new. It’s just both.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress that works as a barista at an on-studio cafe to pay her bills. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist who ostracises himself from the Los Angeles music community for his puritanical opinions regarding jazz. They meet and they fall in love. That much should be clear from the outset to anyone who has even a fleeting appreciation of the film musical. It’s highly likely that you will get more out of the film the more film savvy you are. La La Land knows cinema. But Chazelle doesn’t completely subscribe to the expectations that he lays down and it’s when he brings fresh perspective to La La Land’s overt classicism that the film is at its best.
As much as it is about love, La La Land might be more about passion. Not physical passion for another person but the passion of a pursuit. Sebastian wants to open a jazz bar but is worried that nobody will come because nobody listens to jazz anymore. Mia assures him that they will, because he’s passionate about jazz and people respond to passion. One of my favourite scenes is earlier in the film, as Sebastian tries to explain what makes jazz so great to Mia. Gosling’s performance is one of the most compelling representations of pure passion I’ve seen in film in a long time. La La Land is about jazz, which Sebastian says nobody listens to anymore. It’s also a musical, which nobody watches anymore. Judging from this film, Chazelle is passionate about both and he’s created a film that prevails over impossibility because of it. La La Land is a persuasive reminder of the potent power of passion. It’s an extraordinarily ambitious film, and in many ways, a remarkable achievement.