Revisiting La La Land: A Modern Musical Masterpiece

By: Fran Cava

With the polarizing 94th annual Academy Awards show airing in March, the Steven Spielberg remake of the 1961 musical film West Side Story received well-deserved praise for its attempt and execution of reviving the dwindling genre. With a declining number of musicals being produced in the film world each year, having one of the most successful directors of all time taking a stab at one of the more iconic playscripts’ has a recipe for success that big studios strive for. While the applause and awards were more than justified, critics including members of the Academy seem to have forgotten the musical-romance masterclass that was created just six years ago by then-up-and-coming director Damien Chazelle.

La La Land, released at the end of summer 2016, is a tale of two 20-somethings navigating the tribulations of their careers and love. Damien Chazelle, who was already lauded for his first major film, Whiplash (2014), decided to use some of his leftover musical genius in pioneering the story of his next endeavor. Like Whiplash, music is a catalyst for all the events that occur during La La Land’s 128-minute runtime. With catchy tunes wonderfully sung by Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and R & B star John Legend, the songs help create a lustful and heartwarming tone for the film’s first act.

Building off the intense and riveting dialogue in his first film, Chazelle perfected how to translate real-world relationships onto the big screen in his second effort. Besides the phenomenal chemistry between the two main leads Gosling and Stone, the script emulates the problems that come with trying to balance becoming successful and loving someone like very few films ever have. The characters, maintaining mundane day jobs in the bright lights of Los Angeles to fuel their passion to make it big, are extremely believable in their hopes, wants, and dreams. The background and path each are on, help create a sense of pressure that sticks to both as a shadow entering the film’s second act. The screenplay is tight in both acts, with not a wasted scene of humor or drama apparent.

Besides the writing, some of La La Land’s best aspects can be chalked up to the technical work done by Chazelle and his team during the film’s production. Musical notes and scenes were recorded in a single take, including the infamous epilogue closing song. This is a testament to how hard the two leads and dancer Mandy Moore worked to master the choreography in a short window of time. The set design, a bold attempt at blending old and new age Hollywood, works as another character in the sense that the city drastically affects and alters both characters’ lives. Props being jarred around the room during musical sets adds another dimension to the film’s dynamic, as the fluid movement of the stage, and its parts allow for glossier transitions and negates the need for quick camera cuts. The editing by Tom Cross is seamless, with transitions whisking you away from scene to scene smoothly. Linus Sandgren, the director of principal cinematography, helped capture the essence of romance with his dreamy Los Angeles backdrops, and his fluid camera work.

The unsung hero of the film might just be the director’s use of primary and secondary colors. Strategically used to help bridge the audience to where the characters are mentally and emotionally, the vibrant array of colors popping off the screen also helps create a magical mood that is found in the talented streets where the characters reside. Each of these integral parts of pre and postproduction, ultimately takes what was already the makeup of a great film, into the echelon of an all-timer. When discussing the best musicals of the past century, or ever even – La La Land on all accounts deserves to be in the conversation.

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