Writer/ director Damien Chazelle’s admiration for movie musicals is evident even before the action in “La La Land” begins. The credits open with a partial view of black and white letters. When the camera angle widens, it reveals the word “CinemaScope.” This widescreen format was used for many 1950s musicals and Chazelle chose it for “La La Land,” too. Once the CinemaScope logo switches to color, the opening song and dance number “Another Day of Sun” starts the film off with high energy.
Chazelle’s Valentine to Hollywood musicals centers on a love story between two aspiring artists. Mia (Emma Stone) is a transplant from Nevada who came to Los Angeles in hopes of being an actress in the style of her muse, Ingrid Bergman. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist who reveres classic jazz and wants to own a jazz club.
Mia and Sebastian have three prickly “meet cutes” (on a freeway overpass, in a restaurant, and finally at a pool party) before they tentatively start to accept one another. As they literally dance around each other, Mia and Sebastian also weigh career choices- pursue their artistic dreams or settle for steady paychecks?
“La La Land” nicely marries its songs (lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, music by Justin Hurwitz) with Mandy Moore’s choreography. The opening “Another Day of Sun” introduces the audience to creative hopefuls drawn to Los Angeles and Hollywood. Southern California’s ethnic melting pot is on display as the ensemble cast sings about “reaching for the heights and chasing all the lights” and dances, skateboards, and bikes among cars stuck in freeway overpass gridlock.
As the leads, Stone and Gosling had to learn to sing and dance. And, in the case of Gosling, he worked for months on his piano skills to give Sebastian’s jazz solos an authentic look. While neither Stone nor Gosling has a unique singing voice or dance style, they both do justice to the material they’re given. They’re definitely not Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly or Cyd Charisse. For that top level of dancing and singing, audiences will want to check out the classic musicals that inspired Chazelle in the first place.
The two fantasy sequences in “La La Land” pay homage to MGM musicals. The constellation lit setting for Mia and Sebastian’s waltz at the Griffith Park Observatory is partially reminiscent of the starlit set used for Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire’s “Begin the Beguine” tap dance in “Broadway Melody of 1940.” And “La La Land’s” concluding fantasy montage takes its cues from the end ballet sequence of Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 “An American in Paris.”
Cinematographer Linus Sandgren has creatively lit “La La Land.” Upbeat, happy moments are warmly lit and saturated in primary colors. In contrast, times of introspection and/or conflict receive subdued lighting. This is especially true in scenes involving Mia. Her moods help dictate Sandgren’s light palette.
Likewise, the sound work supervised by Mildred Iatrou adds to the plot. Noises such as blaring horns, alarms, and cell phone rings intentionally intrude and signal plot shifts.
“La La Land” went to great lengths to shoot on location in various Los Angeles area spots including Angels Flight, Grand Central Market, Pasadena’s Colorado Street Bridge, the Griffith Observatory, Watts Towers, and South Pasadena’s Rialto Theatre. Unfortunately, while striving to capture an “authentic” look, the film also has disinfected its urban setting. Graffiti and homeless tents don’t exist in this L.A.; even litter is well hidden. While this is a “pretty” view, it negates “La La Land’s” use of real locales. Imparting the atmosphere of the actual place is partly the role of location shoots. Using a backlot or soundstage would have resulted in the same level of artificiality seen in the movie’s sanitized City of Angels.
Chazelle’s choice of CinemaScope’s widescreen aspect ratio results in a slimming of figures on standard screens. This makes Stone, plus Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, and Sonoya Mizuno as her roommates, look overly thin. It’s especially noticeable in the number “Someone in the Crowd” and in the pool party scene where the female cast members appear uncomfortably lean, rather than dancer-like svelte. Hopefully this is just a function of CinemaScope rather than Chazelle and company intentionally casting for model-thin appearances.
“La La Land” succeeds best in its most honest moments. During Mia’s casting song “Audition (Fools Who Dream)”, Stone perfectly blends intensity and sincere emotion as she sings alone, starkly lit in full frame. And, the end fantasy sequence set to “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” seamlessly takes the audience through a “what could have been” montage that feels authentic in its message of how much one choice impacts so many other possibilities.