It may be nearing Christmas, but it never snows in Los Angeles where it's another day of blazing sunshine. Imagine if all the people in this traffic jam were to get out of their cars right now and simply start singing and dancing, wouldn't that be a great way of easing their grumpiness and generally improving the mood of the city? But nobody thinks of doing that, they would rather pump their horns and grumble, such as Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who as the vehicles start to move makes a point of beeping his horn impatiently at the woman in front, Mia (Emma Stone); she returns his anger by offering him a rude gesture, and they both go about their day, he an aspiring musician and she an aspiring actress...
Making an old-fashioned musical in the twenty-first century was something of a gamble, but it paid off for La La Land, writer and director Damien Chazelle's follow-up to his sleeper hit Whiplash, also a film with a music theme. It could be the secret was that while this was informed by the classic musicals that hit the screen, especially the Hollywood productions of the nineteen-fifties and the French examples of the sixties, it was not slavish in its attempts to elicit the same emotions or even the same visual and aural effects; yes, the cast sang and danced (well, some of them did), but this was resolutely a film of its era and not a simple recreation of what had gone before. For that reason it proved divisive, with those purist fans of the classics decrying it, and proud, self-confessed haters of the form saying they never liked musicals anyway.
The latter would gain plenty of satisfaction at the degree of picking apart La La Land that went on once it was gathering up audience interest and indeed awards interest, but if you simply wanted a modest charmer that did not really bear all this harsh scrutiny, you would be amply rewarded, especially as Chazelle obviously understood not merely what made a fun dance routine or warm melody on the ears, but how these things needed to resonate dramatically as well. Mia in particular suffers terribly in the narrative, so much so that the film was happy to crush her dreams if it meant we could ultimately be pleased for her with regard to what did work out in her life, though the director was careful not to allow her to have it all her own way, not the conclusion many romantic tales of this ilk would wind up at.
In that manner there was a lot of the cult Gene Kelly musical It's Always Fair Weather about this; that was not a hit at the time but went on to be a marker of how the era of the style being regularly produced by Hollywood as a guaranteed money maker was drawing to a close, and its bittersweet, even cynical tone was all too apt for that effect. None of the dancing here was up to the standards of a Kelly, a Fred Astaire, a Ginger Rogers or a Cyd Charisse, but it did not need to be, as we were given enough of a motive to see Sebastian and Mia as rounded personalities that we could perceive their terpsichorean endeavours as an expression of how they wished life would play out like the most satisfying art, music especially, and how they were ordinary folks interpreting that hope as best they could. It's not as if there were a huge amount of such numbers to choose from anyway.
That was down to Chazelle taking away Mia's joy in such expression, be that musically or her acting, part of the way through the plot, necessitating her to find her muse once again so she could rediscover her joie de vivre. You did miss those scenes when they went, which presumably was the idea, since she was the heart and soul of the story, a sweet enough girl that she can melt the frosty exterior of Sebastian, who in truth is pretty hard work with his strong opinions on his passion in life, utterly intractable in his belief that jazz should endure the way he wants it to. One aspect of that was highlighted in the unspoken but heavily implied point that when you stop caring about something, it disappears, and that will happen to us all eventually, be that our interests or our loves, which brought us to the finale that did not explain every last detail, yet allowed us to accept what was important and how life will move on, whether you're ready for it or not. La La Land delighted in the ephemera that enhances our waking hours, and made it seem as important as anything that affects us in the long term; wise after the fact maybe, but far from dismissive of passing happiness. Music by Justin Hurwitz.