Saturday morning I was in LA. Sunday evening I was watching LA LA LAND, a dreamy musical about LA (whose title therefore qualifies as a triple-entendre — very impressive).
Having just seen or at least learned about all the sights of LA, it was a bit disorienting to see them again onscreen. I had to remind myself where I was at least once.
The movie opens with an ancient studio title sequence, from the very earliest color films. That sets the target: this is a movie in pursuit of Old Hollywood, and everything is a reference. Then the opening sequence starts … and it’s people stuck in traffic on the freeway. That sets the setting: a vision of modern LA grounded in prosaic reality. We pan … and then people burst out of the cars and into song and dance. None of them are famous faces, but as the camera continues its long single shot, we see more and more of the surroundings, eventually revealing that we are on an actual LA freeway, on a curving ramp high over the interchange below, with actual traffic flowing and yet our traffic jam, complete with dancers on the roof of every car, stretching nigh unto infinity.
That sets the method, the mood, and the topic: high-budget hijinks, playful surrealism, song, dance, and a celebration of the young performer trying to make it big in Hollywood. Mix in a dose of bittersweet ambiguity, and you have a perfect recipe for Oscar bait.
Actually, watching it in my Manhattan movie theater, that wasn’t what I thought of first. My first thought was: when is it coming to Broadway?
As musicals go, it’s less musical than most. Screen time devoted to music is low, even lower if you subtract performances that are literally occurring within the plot. The singing sounds like an amplified whisper. Music is emotional, but our screen couple are cautious people, who share their feelings only quietly, tentatively, privately. I expect that this is entirely deliberate; Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone could probably be virtuosic if that’s what was needed.
Oh yeah, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. One of the old Hollywood references in this movie is in its construction as a “star vehicle”. Maybe you could make a movie like this around unknown actors, but it wouldn’t be the same. Watching Emma Stone fail an audition, or Ryan Gosling playing deeply reluctant keytar in an 80s cover band, is funny instead of sad.
For them, at least, we know it’s a happy ending.