The first time synchronised sound ever came to the movies, it was in the form of singing, and for a period movie musicals were a commercial powerhouse. For quite some time now though, they have been relegated to the fringes in the form of remakes, one-off curios and subversive takes on the genre. Now, however, the utterly charming honest-to-God musical spectacular La La Land may usher in a new generation of movie musicals.
La La Land is director Damien Chazelle's follow-up to the massively acclaimed Whiplash, and like that film it is visually stunning, emotionally engrossing and complex, and full of brilliant music with a particular jazz flourish courtesy of his musical cohort Justin Hurwitz. The film immediately sets the scene with a colourful number taking place on a gridlocked Los Angeles freeway, before introducing the two romantic leads in the form of the old-fashioned and prickly jazz purist Seb (Ryan Gosling), and the ambitious but reserved actress Mia (Emma Stone). The two cross paths (and butt heads), but ultimately fall for one another, their tumultuous relationship guided by their competing and diverging dreams.
The film is absolutely wondrous to behold - Linus Sandgren's cinematography is full of painstakingly ordered colour and movement shot in absorbing long takes - but it never gets visual spectacle get in the way of the story. Songs and recurring musical motifs eloquently complete and illuminate the growth of characters, which tends to feel far more complex than many classic musicals. The tropes are all there, including a phantasmagorical climax straight out of Singin' in the Rain or An American in Paris, but La La Land is surprisingly devoid of schmaltz or moments of contrived romance that mar classic musicals for many contemporary audiences.
Part of this may be because Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are both accomplished dramatic and comedic actors. They are as adept at delivering the film's many moments of self-aware humour as they are at sinking their teeth into scenes of tenderness or sorrowful gravitas. Emma Stone in particular seems to have reached a new level of skill with this film, and there are times in which she has the bearing and the devastating presence of the great Ingrid Bergman to whom reference is repeatedly made throughout.
Ultimately, though, one of the film's key strengths is Chazelle's screenplay, which subverts notions not just of how musicals should play out, but how love stories play out on-screen. Despite the intentionally overblown, production, the love story feels organic; it unfolds with great pathos, avoiding needless melodrama, and it is never abruptly forced into a shape that audiences may expect. This is as much a love letter to classic Hollywood and its many deeply ingrained tropes, as it is an illustration of how they don't always work in the real world.
La La Land is a film full of contradictions, but it never feels unruly or overworked. It delivers everything a great musical should - memorable tunes and stunning choreography - while still providing a deeply satisfying love story that is in keeping with the honesty and relatability that is expected of contemporary cinema. If La La Land does indeed lead to a movie musical renaissance, it will be interesting to see if anything can stack up to the stunning example it sets.
La La Land opens in Australian cinemas on Boxing Day.