2017 has arrived, bringing with it snow, bitingly cold winds, and, of course, awards season. This past Sunday, NBC broadcast the annual Golden Globes, bringing with it a cavalcade of celebrities, and high hopes to win one of the entertainment industry’s highest honors. In particular, a little film by the name of La La Land, a musical romp reminiscent of the Golden Age movie musicals of the mid-20th century, had high hopes to bring home a record number of wins.
La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, was nominated for a grand total of seven categories, including Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, Best Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Director. By the end of the evening, the film had swept the awards and won all seven of the categories for which it was nominated. Prior to Sunday, the record for most Golden Globe wins by a film was shared by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Midnight Express (1978), each with six wins that year. Needless to say, that record was shattered this year.
This reviewer has heard a number of people discussing whether or not these wins were well-deserved – after all, how could a romantic musical win out for best screenplay over a powerhouse film like Moonlight? And how could Emma Stone win Best Actress over Meryl Streep? In some ways, La La Land’s sweeping victory doesn’t make a lot of sense.
After two viewings of the film (one on Christmas Day, one the day after New Years), this reviewer can honestly say that not only are those wins well-deserved, they say something about the state of film and our society’s relationship to entertainment and to the ways in which we consume media.
During the golden age of movie musicals (think Singin’ in the Rain, Easter Parade, and White Christmas), movie audiences craved escape and romance, acrobatic dance routines, hummable music, and, of course, a happy ending. Stars like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Debbie Reynolds sang, danced, and romanced their ways into audiences’ hearts, and everyone went home happy. But the 1960’s brought widespread home television viewing and rock and roll into the forefront of public consciousness in a highly immediate and visual way. Showtunes and choreography fell by the wayside in favour of mop-topped teenagers with guitars and the Ed Sullivan Show. The movie musical as we knew it retreated to a distant corner of the public consciousness. In past years, it surfaced in the form of movies like Footloose, Yentl, and the ever-loved animated Disney films of the 80’s and 90’s – and more recently in movies like Once. But our dear old movie musical never achieved its former glory – even in Enchanted, which used music to make fun of the old golden age tropes, rather than uplifting them.
La La Land stands out because not only does it bring back the big production numbers, romance, and seemingly spontaneous, flawless dance routines of yesteryear, it transforms them into a work of art that is at once nostalgic and forward-thinking.
The story: a classic show-biz routine. Starry-eyed young actress meets and falls in love with a sardonic, passionate jazz musician. Both are down on their luck, but find new inspiration in one another. They talk, they sing, they dance. They are, in many ways, perfect for one another. BUT their story is not all rose petals and sunshine. Rather than committing fully to the age-old paradigm of the fluffy, happy love story, the two young protagonist’s relationship has very real difficulties, and reflects far more the reality of modern love, rather than another generation’s fantasy.
The music: at once classic Broadway and modern masterpiece. Composer Justin Hurwitz teamed up with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the lyrics for the film. Pasek and Paul are Off-Broadway and now Broadway veterans, and are the minds that gave us shows like Dogfight and Dear Evan Hansen, which has just moved to Broadway. The old Broadway sensibility is there – but so is a modern outlook. There is a depth and earnestness to the music that has developed over time in the Broadway sphere since the late 1960’s – far more aware of itself and aware of the underlying humanity. “City of Stars,” which won Best Original Song, is the perfect example of this. It could almost be a modern radio hit – and yet it calls upon influences from the music of composers like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin for a decidedly nostalgic flair. A near-perfect hybrid.
The performances: decidedly modern. As opposed to the old style of movie musical acting (big laughs, big fun, not a lot of subtext or character development), La La Land throws two powerful acting talents (Stone and Gosling) into an older format and asks them to do what they do best. Occasionally while singing and dancing. The result is enchanting, though in a way that makes one very aware that you are watching something different than anything you’ve seen before. Exquisitely nuanced and deeply felt, Stone and Gosling’s performances lend an incredible richness and humanity to a story that, if handled only slightly less carefully, would have been heavy-handed and insincere. (My only complaint: the singing was only so-so. Is it so hard to find actors with that kind of emotional gravity and heart that can really sing? Several alternatives come to mind…)
Overall: a stunning film. Richly visual, highly dynamic, funny, poignant, well-paced (it clocks in at 2 hours and 8 minutes, but feels like far less), and a wonderful leap into the future, rooted in a shared past. The magic of La La Land is in its deft handling of an older genre (which has a power in and of itself) within a modern context, with modern actors, creatives, and technology. We may not see another like La La Land for a long time, but the film points the way into the future – not in the sense that every film from here on out should be a musical, but in the sense that there is something to be said for listening to the past, taking what works, and taking real care in making it a work of art for the modern audience.