“La La Land” is deceptively innovative. It evokes classic musicals while pushing the genre forward; it’s old-fashioned and modern at the same time.
Damien Chazelle makes his bold intent clear from the outset: Drivers stuck on a jam-packed freeway ramp exit their cars to sing and dance in a dazzling pyrotechnic display. When the music stops, they get into their cars and the movie’s star-crossed lovers-to-be lock eyes for the first time. They don’t swoon; Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) flips the bird at distracted Mia (Emma Stone) before speeding away.
The traffic and her Prius are thoroughly modern; so, too, his reaction. The fact that she’s clearly an actress preparing for an audition suggests we could soon be heading into familiar territory, however.
Sure enough, visual allusions to classic musicals soon pop up on-screen. Mia and her actress wannabes sport candy-colored dresses similar to the ones Catherine Deneuve wore in “Umbrellas of Cherbourg”; her apartment seems like a Technicolor throwback to an earlier decade. And the story itself, about dreamers trying to make it in Hollywood, harks back to classic musicals such as “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Chazelle deviated from musical norms by filming on actual city streets rather than studio soundstages. He shot at familiar spots throughout the greater Los Angeles area, from Griffith Park to Hermosa Beach. What’s more, he recorded some of the actual singing on location, adding another logistical hurdle to the production.
“Part of the goal was to not only shoot in L.A., but to shoot L.A. for L.A.,” Chazelle says. “So if there’s a dance number on a freeway, it had to be a real freeway. And then we saved the ‘Brigadoon’-style soundstage stuff for the final sequence of the movie.”
Chazelle’s shooting style gave “La La Land” a looser indie feel than glossier big studio predecessors. Gosling and Stone are appealing enough hoofers without seemingly too polished; their song-and-dance routines fit their aspiring characters.
By the movie’s end, both have found their way as artists. Jazz purist Sebastian moved beyond the cover bands and pop music that tormented him, while pragmatic Mia triumphs beyond her dreams. The moviemaking itself has become more elaborate.
Like his characters, Chazelle reveres the past. But he is not slavishly devoted to it.
By fusing retro and modern he has reinvigorated a genre sadly in need of it. Musicals used to be a staple on the big screen, but in recent years have been neglected for trendier fare. Hit musicals have tended to be stage adaptations a la “Chicago” or “Mamma Mia!” with song performance showcases a la “Pitch Perfect” or grind-’em-ups like “Magic Mike” filling the song-and-dance void.
But truly original musicals where characters burst into song and dance out of sheer joie d’vivre have been rare indeed. “La La Land” may inspire more filmmakers to give this genre another spin.
(Tim Gray contributed to this report.)