If readers thought my placement of 1983’s sci-fi/fantasy/swashbuckler Krull at #7 was shocking, this week’s #7 pick from Ponty will truly blow your staggered minds. From the man who just wrote about Halloween (1978), I’d never expect a splashy musical.
I remember seeing this flick back in 2016 on a date, and remember enjoying it (not just due to the excellent execution and story, but probably thanks to Emma Stone—shew!). Suddenly, my students wanted to play “City of Stars” all the time, and jazz piano enjoyed an all-too-brief resurgence.
Ponty gives it a very thorough review, as you’ll see, that really brings out some of the sparkling details of the film without spoiling anything. It probably also holds the distinction of being the only review of a film musical to reference Grand Theft Auto 5, so that should be worth something.
With that, here is Ponty’s review of 2016’s La La Land:
My dad loved musicals. On many a Sunday afternoon, he could be found watching the Kelly or Astaire classics or maybe Marlon Brando singing to a young Jean Simmons in Guys and Dolls (1955). Maybe street gangs prancing around in West Side Story (1961). Glass of brandy in his hand, looking completely relaxed and content, cat on his lap. What the guys in Hot Fuzz (2007) might have called a perfect Sunday. From recollection, though I could be wrong, he wasn’t a fan of the uptempo, rock ‘n’ roll musicals like Grease (1978) but there were plenty of films from the golden age to keep him occupied. Tina, on the other hand, loves them all, no matter what era they came from. Tina and my dad would have got on famously. It’s such a shame they never got the chance to meet. What dad would have loved, though, is that Tina got me into musicals. I hated them with a passion for a time. I never saw the point in actors breaking scene to pansy about, singing and dancing like girlies. Look at Grease, Guys and Dolls, and West Side Story. They’re supposed to be cool, hip, in some cases, menacing. What the hell were they doing, flouncing around like multi-coloured peacocks?
As it was, age not only brought wisdom and experience but a change in my tastes, so when I bought Tina a collection of musicals for Christmas, something startling happened; not only did I watch them with her, but I loved them. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), which I abhorred as a teen, was suddenly bright and fun. The King and I (1956) made me realise that great actors could perform well in this genre. I find myself occasionally singing the songs from Singing in the Rain (1952) and Oklahoma (1955) when I’m pottering around the house. I still despise West Side Story with a passion but my previous disgust at this genre has gone completely.
We don’t see many musicals nowadays but occasionally one pops onto the radar. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) was weirdly and luridly wonderful and despite its many stage incarnations, no one has come close to Tim Curry’s Frank N. Furter. I loved Chicago (2002) despite the presence of the egotistical Richard Gere, who really had nothing to sing and dance about, his performance as dull as his character in Pretty Woman (1990). As it was, I had to wait for a good 14 years before another musical popped up and what a film. If the old Astaire and Kelly films were musicals for the romantic age, La La Land (2016) is a musical for the cynical, modern age. It still has all the elements of romance and fantasy (it’s colourful, it has the charm, and the numbers are great) the old films had but the narrative is much different, reminding the audience that we have entered a new age. Some may see that as a detriment but I think it works. Plus, I love an ending that rips up the playbook and this one really does that. It even gives this heartless bar steward a lump in his throat and that’s quite an achievement.
Set in LA County, La La Land tells the story of Mia (Emma Stone), a wannabe actress working at a coffee shop and struggling to get her big break, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a serious musician, playing part time at restaurants or weddings but working his way towards buying and running a jazz club. As with many romance films, they’re indifferent to each other at first, sometimes rude, mocking or flippant but after a few chance meetings, they start to get to know one another, their friendship eventually blossoming into a beautiful relationship. There’s a scene near the start where Mia finds Sebastian playing in a cover band at a party and requests “I Ran” by A Flock of Seagulls. Sebastian is unimpressed, as you can see, and Mia excels in toying with him, very much enjoying the moment. The lead singer goes all out, which also made me chuckle, Sebastian, on his right, shaking his head in disgust.
Do they achieve their individual dreams? That’s something you’ll have to find out for yourselves. All I will say is this film expertly explores the pitfalls of an era where ambition and relationships clash, while playfully piecing together the stages of their lives with stunning musical numbers, all against the backdrop of an over romanticised Los Angeles. The film’s LA reminded me of Woody Allen’s Manhattan contrasted against the cynical New York painted in Scorsese movies. I suppose anywhere, no matter how dark and bleak, can seem colourful if viewed through a different lens.
There are some superb and memorable songs and instrumentals in this film, equally poignant and fun. A while ago, as I flicked through some of these songs on YouTube, I saw a comment, which said that they didn’t see the point of a musical where the actors couldn’t sing, dance, or play their own instruments. For me that was a comment borne of ignorance. The performances are solid. So what if they’re not timed to perfection like the musicals of old? Do we always need musicals where the actors are professional singers and dancers? No, we really don’t. As it was, Gosling and Stone, in my opinion, were both great singers and they danced very well together. Part of the charm of this musical is they’re not trained in singing and dancing and learned as they went along. In fact, Gosling also learned how to play piano for this role. As anyone who plays a musical instrument knows, it takes perseverance and hard work to get to a decent level so Gosling should be applauded. Here is Sebastian playing to an uninterested restaurant more accustomed to hearing novelty tunes:
In the time since its release, stage musicals of La La Land have been released across the globe, probably with trained singers and/or dancers. I don’t care about all that. They’ll never be better, in my opinion, than Gosling and Stone. That their performances weren’t as clipped as Astaire and Rogers made it more magical for me. See for yourself and tell me what you think.
My favourite songs in this film are “City of Stars” and “The Fools Who Dream.” “City of Stars” (sung near the beginning by Ryan Gosling and again a little later by Gosling and Stone) is a beautiful song that reflects the romance of the city and its inhabitants, in this case, Mia and Sebastian. “The Fools Who Dream” is a ditty sung by Mia when she’s asked to tell a story at one of her auditions. I also have a soft spot for “What A Lovely Night,” the lyrics of which reflect the stage in which Mia and Sebastian find themselves in at this point: ‘What a lovely view, tailor made for two…what a shame those two are you and I.’ Superb! And as for the planetarium number, there was something lovely and magical about that. When Mia and Sebastian floated into the stars, it reminded me of that scene from Singing in the Rain when Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse draw close to each other, Charisse’s dress billowing out behind her.
Damien Chazelle, who wrote and directed this film, gives his stars plenty of room to express themselves, widening his camera to take in the scenery while gifting his characters the spotlight during poignant or serious moments. If this guy doesn’t have a stage background, I’d be surprised, because he knew all the tricks of the trade. The film was paced nicely to allow us to get to know Mia and Sebastian though the supporting cast, dance numbers aside, are more directly linked to the plot rather than the musical side of things; i.e., they help push the story forward, more so from Sebastian’s perspective as their actions play a major part in his decisions. The big dance numbers are delightful as they are colourful but let’s face it, this is Mia and Sebastian’s story and their journey is nicely mapped from their initial meeting to an ending which will surprise and shock in equal measure.
One of my favourite aspects about this film is also a personal one. Some of the locations are settings used in the video game, Grand Theft Auto 5. The planetarium visited by Mia and Sebastian provides the setting for a few of GTA’s missions; I shot down a plane on the bank near the planetarium and started to chase the crippled plane on motorbike from its car park. The Chateau Marmont, where Mia stays, is a hotel I’ve driven past many times, usually on the run from the police and some of the street scenes, including the one where Sebastian starts singing “What A Lovely Night,” are places I’ve either driven through or off or shot from. There’s just something weirdly nostalgic about revisiting these places, this time for a romantic film rather than for epic chases (though I have parked off these streets to admire the view).
You’ll notice that I didn’t include the videos for any of the songs in this film. There’s a good reason for that, as each number is essential in the journey these characters take. If you want to follow their story, you’ll have to watch the film yourself and watch it you should. For me to include a musical in this list shows just how good a film this is.