Every day until the Oscars ceremony we’ll be highlighting a different category or movie here on the LAMB! Here’s a link to all the posts written so far: https://largeassmovieblogs.com/2017/01/the-lamb-devours-the-oscars-2017-roster.html
It’s no secret that there are very few things Hollywood enjoys more than films that celebrate themselves. The fact that La La Land has been received remarkably well amongst the Hollywood establishment, tying the record number for Oscar nominations with stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone frontrunners in their respective categories, could not have come as a shock to anyone. But where La La Land succeeds is not in the ebullient praise it lavishes on the crazy exciting creatively fulfilling lives of actors and musicians, but its ability to pen an incredibly effective love letter to the classic Hollywood era and the universe it inhabits.
It’s easy to look at actors making films about how hard and complicated their lives are and see them as out of touch, self-absorbed liberals living in their ivory towers and every other insult that gets hurled at the Hollywood elite. And if La La Land was just the story of a struggling actress who falls in love with a down and out jazz musician, it may have been a good movie, but it seems unlikely that it would have become an Oscar darling that everyone seems to love.
But here, La La Land deftly combines this love story between LA creative types (we all know a handful of them) with a broader love story to what Hollywood is and everything it stands for by paying homage to the classic movie musical.
I’m going to let you guys in on a little secret: emotionally, I’m not doing so hot these days. The past few weeks (hell, the past year) have been incredibly trying, and my heart is so full of rage right now that the idea of cynical old me being distracted by a light, frothy musical feels somewhat unlikely. But no matter what emotional baggage I came into the movie with, as soon as the opening number began, I couldn’t help but smile.
There is a reason why 1930s Hollywood produced a massive number of glitzy musicals despite the vast majority of their viewers facing financial ruin: they make you feel good. Is it a coincidence that as America and, by extension, the rest of the world faces a gloomy political climate, a film that provides some much-needed escapism would capture the imaginations of audiences? I mean, possibly, but probably not.
But perhaps the escapist angle doesn’t give enough credit to the film’s stars, Gosling and Stone, who have always managed to capture the spark of Hollywood screen duos from yesteryear. Their chemistry is undeniable, both idiosyncratic enough to bring a breath of fresh air to the proceedings that more conventional movie stars lack. And make no mistake, they bring everything they have to this film.
La La Land is experimental in its approach to many aspects, but where it does stay true to old Hollywood musicals is in its song and dance numbers, and there’s no getting around the fact that anyone who might hope to be successful in either of these roles would need a certain set of skills that goes beyond what is usually asked of an actor. There’s singing, there’s dancing, and both of La La Land’s stars prove more than up to the task of bringing the musical numbers to life. And can we talk about how Ryan Gosling legitimately learned the piano for this film to the point that he didn’t need hand doubles or CGI for any of the piano sequences? It’s sort of unfair, when you think about it, how sometimes God gives with, like, eight hands. And he’s not the only one doing some heavy lifting here. Emma Stone’s greatest strength is her natural wit and likeability, but here she shows real vulnerability, particularly in her Fools Who Dream audition piece, a highlight of the film and a clear choice for her Oscar clip.
And there’s one more thing that pushes this film over the edge in terms of impact: that ending. Throughout the entire film, despite the fact that everything is brightly lit and upbeat, there’s this feeling of a wistful melancholy that sits right at the edges of the relationship between the two main characters, always trying to find its way in. The end is perhaps not what people were expecting or indeed might want, but it feels right tonally and provides their entire love story with another layer of depth that might have been missing otherwise.
More than anything else, La La Land has a pervasive sense of whimsy and originality to it that can’t help but endear audiences to it. This is a film that cannot have been easy to sell to producers (a modern musical made in old Hollywood style?), but director Damien Chazelle had such a unique vision that it was worth the risk. One can’t help but wonder how his career will evolve, being such a young director with La La Land serving as one of the most impressive calling cards of all time. (Interestingly, his next project will be another collaboration with Ryan Gosling, telling the story of a young Neil Armstrong.)
So let’s see. La La Land has been rewarded for its style and charm with an astonishing fourteen Oscar nominations, tying the all time record. And the crazy thing is that it stands a good chance to win a lot of those. It’s certainly a solid contender for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Original Song. The lesson here, to all would-be Oscar nominees, is that you should never underestimate the power of escapism when paired with immensely likeable lead actors and a good old-fashioned American musical.