January 19, 2016

Hooray for Hollywood!! The Hollywood Musical Is Alive and Well with LA LA LAND!!!

Who said the Hollywood movie musical is dead? Maybe napping at times, but certainly not dead as is evidenced by this glorious, toe-tapping, Technicolor delight from writer/director Damien Chazelle - LA LA LAND. A love letter not only to the movie musical and the studios and artisans who made them (thank you MGM, Fox and RKO, among others), LA LA LAND is also Chazelle's love letter to Los Angeles and all the dreamers that have come before and will come again, seeing the hidden beauty that makes Los Angeles a "City of Dreams." Replete with starry nights, smoky jazz clubs, song and dance numbers reminiscent of those lavish and lush MGM proscenium-staged Busby Berkeley directed films or back-dropped ballets like "An American In Paris", with a quaint and charming story, numbers range from an intimate two-person tap dance atop a hill set against a soft and blazing pink and orange sunset, to a cast of hundreds singing and dancing atop cars in the freeway, and of course, a boy and a girl dancing on air a la Fred and Ginger or Kelly and Reynolds, all so perfectly designed and executed so that classic film buffs may find themselves humming the unforgettable 1929 Nacio Herb Brown/Arthur Freed tune "You Were Meant For Me" envisioning scenes from "Penny Serenade", "The Broadway Melody" or, the musical standard bearer, "Singin' in the Rain." Thanks to Chazelle, composer Justin Hurwitz, lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, cinematographer Linus Sandgren, choreographer Mandy Moore, and the talents of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, LA LA LAND is the best of the best.

A purist through and through, Sebastian (Gosling) is a lover of all things jazz. His dream is to own his own jazz club. Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress, who also dabbles in playwriting to create roles for herself, and like every actress who has come before and will ever come after, pays the bills by working as a Barista in a coffee shop on a movie studio lot (in this case, Warner Bros.). And as much as Sebastian loves jazz and its history, the same goes for Mia and her obsession with the glamour and magic of old movie stars, notably Ingrid Bergman as evidenced by a full wall mural in her bedroom, as well as movie posters like the 1934 Karloff-Lugosi classic, "The Black Cat."

We first meet Mia and Sebastian, separate and apart from each other, but star-crossed thanks to a kick-up-your-heels-heart-swelling-sweeping song and dance number during a morning drive-time traffic jam on the Los Angeles freeway. Mia is trying to memorize lines for an audition. Sebastian is trying to listen to jazz in his classic convertible amidst the musical cacophony at play. The sequence is a stunner. Although shot in three sections and seamlessly melded together giving the appearance of one long take, director Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren utilized Steadicam and crane-rigged cameras to capture the energy and flow of the dance, with camera movement integrated within choreographer Mandy Moore's intricately designed number to "Another Day of Sun". WOW! With eye-popping saturated color, the mood is set, taking the characters and the audience into this "gotta sing, gotta dance" universe of dreams.


After a less than pleasant exchange that includes honking and flipping each other off on the freeway when traffic begins to movie and Mia doesn't, the two bump into each other again when Mia leaves a party which she was dragged to by her three glossy and glam roommates, only to find herself alone on a street walking home when lured by the sound of tinkling ivories in a hidden little restaurant. Enticed, Mia enters the restaurant and heads for the music coming from the bar. In true Hollywood fashion, the lights dim and a soft spotlight focuses on the piano and its player. Mia only has eyes for him. But as she is pulled back into reality, the glimmer quickly fades as he rudely storms past her and out the door.

(Noteworthy to Los Angelenos and anyone planning to visit the area, that little supper club is the legendary Smokehouse Restaurant located in Burbank across from Warner Bros. Serving the stars since 1949, and myself for the past almost 36 years, the Smokehouse captures the essence and look of old Hollywood, which is only enhanced by the Christmas lighting employed in the film. What you see on screen is what you experience in the actual restaurant.)

As luck, and the movie gods, would have it, the two meet up yet again; this time at a pool party where jazz-loving Sebastian is begrudgingly playing synth-keyboards in an 80's cover band. Mia recognizes him immediately from their two prior encounters and does her level best to humiliate him with the most egregious musical requests possible for him to play during the party. And while Mia and Sebastian may not yet realize it, the audience does - these two are meant to be - and by the time the night ends, they start to realize it as well thanks to a hilltop sunset tap dance number that not only charms, but has one thinking Gene Kelly with every move Ryan Gosling makes, as Mia and Seb walk, talk, soft-shoe, toe-tap and a la "Singin' in the Rain's" Don Lockwood and Kathy Seldon, start to fall in love.

Creating a lyric poetry with his visual storytelling, Chazelle then takes us on the real love letter to Los Angeles as the Mia-Seb romance unfolds across the city with all the beauty and magic possible culminating in a dance among the stars at the Griffith Observatory. To borrow from Bette Davis in "Now, Voyager", why ask for the moon when we already have the stars. And boy do we; twinkling on screen and in the eyes and hearts of the audience.

But the magic of Mia and Seb does fade as the bloom is off the rose when expectations of life - rent, gas, electricity - take hold and decisions must be made. Can they each achieve their dream and stay together? Will the need for success pull them apart? Or will "selling out" be the straw to break the camel's back? With strong pulls a la George Cukor's Esther Blodgett and Norman Maine in the 1954 "A Star Is Born" or the unfolding tarnishing in one of Chazelle's favorite musicals and influences,"The Umbrellas of Cherbourg", the third act becomes moodier, melancholy, filling us with quiet dramatic solos.

As already mentioned, LA LA LAND is a glorious, toe-tapping delight! Ryan Gosling has all the makings of Gene Kelly. As Seb, his dance movements are very a la Kelly with an athleticism that is energetic yet fun, as well as romantic. His vocal stylings are equally as naturalistic and pure, unfettered by autotune and trappings found in films today. Then paid Gosling with Emma Stone (again) and the two are the closest thing to Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain" we may ever see. My mind reeled the entire film seeing nods to what Donen and Kelly did with "Singin' in the Rain", Arthur Freed and MGM, Eleanor Powell with the tap dancing, Busby Berkeley with some close to geometric overhead shots, yet with more than a twinge of Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge!"

Oscar-winning Chazelle favorite J.K. Simmons is on-hand as the supper club (Smokehouse) owner, with a stylistic wink and a nod to his "Whiplash" character. Rosemarie DeWitt also has a nice turn as Seb's non-dreaming sister Laura.

Visually, the film electrifies with energy and vibrancy, but is softened with those glorious nighttime sunsets of pinks that harken to Don Lockwood wooing Kathy Selden on an MGM soundstage, using all the magic of the movies to set the scene and then fueling romantic sentimentality with songs like "City of Stars." And Mia & Sebastian's theme music courtesy of Justin Hurwitz is ethereal. Hurwitz' score on the whole has a Gershwin or Porter feel to it, but is then complemented by the high octane performances of "Another Day of Sun" or John Legend's "Start A Fire". There is a magnificent blend of romanticism and realism that fills the screen and the heart. The musicality of the film - and the chemistry between Gosling and Stone - propels the emotional beats.

Every image from cinematographer Linus Sandgren is a picture postcard, but none moreso than the dancing in the stars number in the final dream sequence, even the dancing in the stars in Griffith Observatory is pretty. Shot on 35mm, widescreen format, Sandgren used anamorphic lenses specially ground by Panavision to give a 2:52 aspect ratio. Framing is precise, old school, straight on but with some shots that while not quite as perfectly geometric as Busby Berkeley, nevertheless pay homage. Lighting is rich, lush - especially in The Lighthouse jazz club and with the dreamlike states we see unfold multiple times. Interesting is that not only is color king within the design of LA LA LAND, but colored lights are also employed on top of color design to create specific looks and emotional beats. Chazelle keenly breaks the film into the course of a year, distinguished by transition slides for each season. Not only are the visual transitions cool to look at with the opening and closing a lens, but it also allows for seasonal differentials in the lighting tone.

When it comes to Chazelle's use of color - Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow! Eye-popping. Surreal. Using the primary colors of red, blue and yellow and as the film's base, the color wheel is then built by production designer David Wasco who makes the most of each color, as does costumer Mary Zophres. Everything is truly Technicolor. Natalie Kalmus is smiling down from above on this one. Wasco completely embraces a 40's vibe with the production design, matching the jazz notes of much of the music and the golden age of Hollywood, and given we're shooting at Warner Bros, its legacy. And what about Seb's club design and The Lighthouse? Gorgeous texture and tone with each. Saturated blues surrounding Gosling are rich, like Seb's music. Mia's shared apartment with her roommates is also very vintage and cool, filled with reds, blues and yellows. Zophres similarly gives some 40's touches to the costume design, especially since the cut and flow and fabric of garments in the 40's and 50's Hollywood were made for dancing. Interesting are some of Zophres color departures in wardrobe, e.g., the emerald green dress Mia wears to dinner with boyfriend "Greg" and then to the Rialto Theatre for her first date with Seb. Distinctive, significant moment that requires a stand-apart look. Similarly, when Mia is put into the accordion pleated flowing white Grecian inspired Ginger Rogers gown for the star dance finale - white = significant moment. Background players are dressed in more muted shades of the primaries, always allowing Mia and Seb to stand out.

Adding even just a bit more movie magic to LA LA LAND, and a dream come true for Damien Chazelle, is the scoring which was done with full orchestra and choir at Sony Studios (formerly MGM) on the same scoring stage as, among others, "The Wizard of Oz", "Singin' in the Rain", "Gigi", "An American In Paris", "Show Boat", "Anchors Aweigh", "Gone With the Wind" and "Ben Hur".

Story is sweet and old-fashioned, enchanting. Thanks to musical numbers and some lovely montage sequences edited by Tom Cross, there is a lyricism to the flow of the film as a whole. Although taking a hard left turn from the opening number of LA LA LAND by the third act, Chazelle stays true to the story and the characters he has created, then rewarding Mia, Seb and the audience, with an explosive nine-minute climactic number that undoubtedly has Arthur Freed, Berkeley, Minnelli, Donen, Kelly, Astaire, Pan, Mamoulian and all the stars in the musical heavens cheering along with the audience.

You're gonna go gaga for LA LA LAND!

Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, J.K. Simmons, Rosemarie DeWitt


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