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"La La Land" successfully revitalizes the Hollywood musical

Layered line-waiters on the last day of the festival. The Telluride sun came out at unexpected times, especially blinding when coming out of a dark theater.
Layered line-waiters on the last day of the festival. The Telluride sun came out at unexpected times, especially blinding when coming out of a dark theater.

By A.J. Newberry, Staff Writer

Last year, in one my first film classes at Miami, in preparation for "Singin' in the Rain," my professor told our class about her deep love of musicals. With their upbeat casts performing dance numbers on an Olympic level, the musicals struck me with their charisma, and I felt unashamed to express my enjoyment. The power of the genre to transcend preference was a unique quality, but like many other genres of Classical Hollywood, its success reached its limits by the 1960s.

But fear not, 2016, for we are the latest generation of nostalgics to dive deep into the talent of the past to bring you backstage comedies like "Hail, Caesar!," Western remakes like "The Magnificent Seven," plus anything and everything that can be marketed as a "biographical picture." This trend in Hollywood may appear conceited or lazy, but in capable hands, these films deliver us the magic we thought was only available in the past.

Damien Chazelle, the director of the upcoming film "La La Land," has very capable hands. His 2014 film, "Whiplash," was nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and centered around the meticulous development of a jazz musician.

"La La Land" is a musical starring two Hollywood sweethearts, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Stone plays a struggling actress and Gosling, a mired pianist. The two happen upon one another in Los Angeles after having their talents rejected. Love soon blossoms, illustrated through one of many homages to Gene Kelly's dance numbers. Gosling and Stone are not skilled dancers, so Chazelle compensates with fantastic camera movements. But this isn't distracting, as we come to understand the playfulness the filmmaker is mimicking from original Hollywood musical-comedies.

Young but experienced, the two leads revel in their own personalities and flaws, making the film believable and very funny. The camera makes jokes too, such as when Stone's character, Mia, cycles through dramatic auditions, pouring her soul out to the audience only to be cut off by an impatient interviewer behind our field of vision. Gosling's character, Sebastian, encounters similar artistic ruses as his career as a jazz musician is stalled by managers and bandleaders who force him into the mainstream.

Mr. Chazelle, who gave hard bop jazz its due recognition in 2014, continues his dedication to the history of music with a recognition of America's jazz roots. Sebastian takes Mia to a cafe outside of town to watch a quartet of black men, wailing on their horns in the middle of the afternoon. Sebastian explains that jazz arose in a smoky room of immigrants brought together by the common language of music. Sebastian himself is recruited by a character played by John Legend (a Grammy award-winning giant in reality), effectively giving jazz and its culture a true voice in the musical.

Hollywood musicals were perhaps most defined by Technicolor film stock and the florescent palettes of set dressing and costume design, and this is where "La La Land" exceeds all expectations. Flooded in artificial lighting, the costumes by Mary Zophres pop on the chic set design of Sandy Reynolds-Wasco. Zophres has worked with the Coen brothers over a dozen times, and Reynolds-Wasco has been collaborating with Quentin Tarantino ever since "Reservoir Dogs."

Ironically, art direction by Austin Gorg draws influence from David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," using hypnotic color grading, special effects and transitions that give the film a continuous dreamlike quality. "Dreamlike" may seem like a cliche descriptor, but you can't deny the surreal feel to this film.

Chazelle also wrote the film, and as with his earlier screenplay flops, he struggles to rationalize the story in a music-heavy plot. The film lags in the middle, as Gosling and Stone argue about a conflict that wouldn't quite be justified in a normal movie. The music carries us onward, but not without leaving a blemish in an otherwise enjoyable show.

This film is a love letter to Hollywood musicals and film history, but that doesn't limit its appeal to the general public. If you think about it, musicals have historically been the only art films accessible to mass audiences, bringing in star power for a feel-good occasion. The final music number of "La La Land" blew me away, but that's not to say the Hollywood musical is ready for its comeback.

Then again, maybe it is.

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4/5 stars