Upon reaching high school, I was excited to find myself heavily involved in theatre, an activity in which I had thought about engaging for years and one that would become a large focus of mine until graduation. Though I considered returning to the stage in the time that followed, I never truly did follow through and eventually shifted my passion more towards music-nevertheless, my appreciation for the medium never faded, especially when it came to the art form that is the stage musical.
Growing up, the films of Walt Disney were staples of the Farvour household, during which time I developed an interest in the classic Disney songbook present in nearly every piece of their early-to-mid 20th century animated output. As I aged into my teens, names like Andrew Lloyd Webber became familiar thanks to titles such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Phantom of the Opera & Cats (a family favorite), while Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story & the great Fiddler on The Roof not only captured my attention in their own right, but also served as the music my high school’s marching band used as part of our field shows my junior & sophomore years, respectively. Meanwhile, the acclaimed duo that was Rodgers and Hammerstein began to latch onto that part of the brain one uses when appreciating theatre, especially during my senior year when I was cast in our production of Oklahoma! and sang, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel at my senior year baccalaureate. Even after high school I found more musicals I grew to love, such as Chicago, Moulin Rouge, The Book of Mormon, Wicked, Jersey Boys, Once, Les Miserables and The Producers, among others.
With this appetite for musicals firmly embedded within my persona, I was excited to learn of a new, original entry into the genre known as La La Land that was to be released in late 2016 from Damien Chazelle, the director of the mighty Whiplash. As a percussionist, I devoured Whiplash, appreciating it for its intensity, outstanding performances and stellar jazz soundtrack, and to learn that the man who helmed one of the best movies of the past few years would be bringing La La Land to screens only served to whet my appetite further. A musical from the genius behind Whiplash, with songs written by Whiplash’s Justin Hurwitz, starring Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone in their third pairing following 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love and 2013’s Gangster Squad? I couldn’t wait.
Pre-release buzz surrounding La La Land was nothing short of incredible, with many touting it as one of the best films in years and a potentially major contender during awards season. Trailers presented a colorful, upbeat throwback to musicals of old, recalling the likes of Singin’ in the Rain and even non-musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, with a taste of the appropriately retro-sounding soundtrack that gave a vintage feel to a story set in the present. Now fully confident that this film could in no way disappoint, I eagerly entered the Marcus North Shore on the final day of 2016 to take in what I believed would be a masterpiece.
Did it live up to the hype, as well as my own lofty expectations? Without a doubt, it did indeed.
The premise is simple, as timeless as the genre into which it fits, set in Los Angeles and revolving around Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, & Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz aficionado with the goal of one day owning a nightclub. When a turn of events brings them together, sparks predictably fly and the plot progresses naturally into the romantic/following-your-dreams storyline that’s consistently been a hallmark of so many films throughout history, both musical and otherwise. Both Stone & Gosling offer equally outstanding performances, whether they’re singing individually or onscreen as a duo, and the well-acted time in between musical numbers helps drive the movie forward while still providing plenty of opportunities for each actor to shine. Stone’s natural charisma and powerful voice are a pleasure to behold, while Gosling channels the great leading men of old with a husky baritone best heard on songs like the low-key “City of Stars”. The two play off each other extremely well, with each sickeningly cute moment thankfully knowing when to rein it in before drowning in a sea of annoyance, usually helped by a classic dance best seen during the adorable “A Lovely Night”. Supporting roles are handled well, with Rosemarie DeWitt as Sebastian’s sarcastic sister, Whiplash’s show-stealer J. K. Simmons in a brief near-cameo as the owner of a club who fires Sebastian early in the film, and, in a slightly disappointing appearance, Finn Wittrock occupying mere minutes of screen time as Mia’s boyfriend Greg, something that unfortunately wastes this fantastic actor’s talents following his unexpectedly great performance in last year’s The Big Short. R&B singer John Legend even manages to hold his own as the frontman of a pop band intent on recruiting the traditionalist Sebastian, although his signature song, “Start A Fire, “ may be one of the more out-of-place, and thus weaker, moments of the film.
Yes, La La Land isn’t perfect, even if one were to overlook Legend’s contribution-the pacing does suffer from time to time, yet it always knows when to pick up speed again, due in no small part to the high-energy music that peppers the soundtrack. The opening number, “Another Day of Sun” is a spirited one-take ensemble song-and-dance on a crowded L. A. freeway, with the following song, “Someone in the Crowd” following suit in similarly lively fashion. A dreamy dance between Mia & Sebastian set at Griffith Park Observatory is surrealistic fun, and Gosling’s piano work throughout the film dances between animated and melancholy, the latter being particularly present in his recurring, “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme” that frames the story. Stone even gets her moment in the spotlight, with the powerful, “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, and that ending…what an ending.
La La Land can be seen as a film version of Gosling’s Sebastian-a movie that loves the past but must embrace the future in order to adapt and succeed. It’s an affectionate tribute to the glory days of film, rich in wonderful performances, Chazelle’s direction and the beautiful music of Justin Hurwitz that help to trump any shortcomings in the story. One can only wonder when La La Land will find its way to the stage like so many adapted film musicals that came before, as well as how many choir students will utilize one of Mia’s solos in their audition for the spring musical. Until then, all we have is this film, a reminder that looking back isn’t such a bad thing, as I did while watching the events of La La Land unfold. A perfect addition to the world of musicals, I’m happy to call it one of my favorites, and though I can’t say if I’ll ever take to the stage again, by watching this film, I felt like I just did.