So La La Land received a record number of nominations from The Academy of Motion Pictures recently and the debate began in earnest. Is this musical a bold cinematic step forward or a rather slow moving average romantic comedy with dancing? Are the actors superbly talented artists destined to replace Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in our collective memories or ill cast brand names whose star power alone carried this flick? To the internet universe it appears to be both, to me neither.
This musical, staring the also nominated Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is a valiant effort to recreate a genre within the confines of itself as detailed in its plot line that works as a metaphor for the movie in turn. Let me explain. Much like the audacious The Artist of a few years ago used silent film to convey it’s message of change, film maker Damien Chazelle uses the meme of a musical to essential push the genre of musicals forward just as the Gosling character Sebastian is faced with the artistic challenge of taking his art- Jazz further. Sebastian goes reluctantly, Chazelle goes perhaps too robustly.
At it’s core this is a love story but not between man and woman but rather between artists and their art. Sebastian loves Jazz, Stone’s character Mia chooses acting. Sebastian wants to copy the greats, Mia to create greatness. They both are in love with their genres and that passion spills over to mutual understanding of each other’s souls but in the end (spoiler alert) maybe not their hearts. Sebastian struggles with his search for perfection through transcription. He is enamored with the greats of his field like Thelonious Monk. He strives to replicate their performances to perfection note for note. He is in fact taking his art backwards.
Mia on the other hand takes advice (ironically from Sebastian of all people) about blazing a new trail by writing her own play versus accepting a role on a remake of a remake or in this case “Dangerous Minds Meets the OC.” She begins preparing a one women high risk play that will attempt to move her art forward, meanwhile Sebastian ironically fights any changes to the perception of his chosen art form Jazz. Especially when greeted by a distant friend Keith played by John Legend. Keith is moving art forward, Sebastian, he complains is stuck in duplicating the greats instead of pushing the envelop.
It is in that struggle that the film resonates and finds its clarity that has struck a chord with so many viewers. What Chazelle accomplishes with his unique story telling is, by pushing his art further, he inhibits the artist’s internal struggle and the results are a splendid musical for the 21st century. Few cinematic musical moments have ever exceeded the opening scene as hundreds of cars backed up on a LA freeway turns into a real traffic jam with singing, dancing and as extravagant of an opener as you’ll ever see. And that my friends is the point. With every song and dance number this film enchants and expands the idea of what a musical can be. The film has the same aspirations as its characters and similar to them succeeds and fails in its pursuit. Sure there are moments that languish in this film, but the imagination of the director and the able stars turn this into a treat that expand one’s horizons of what a musical film can achieve and for that it deserves all its acclaim.