I have always preferred a narrower definition of the term ‘musical’ when deciding if a film falls within the purview of this genre.
Lack of experience could be the reason for this. Also, I suppose two and a half decades of exposure to song and dance sequences that make for most of the screen-time in mainstream Hindi, Marathi and Telugu films will do that to a person.
Nevertheless, for me a film is a musical if the characters in it are either singers or dancers or musicians and the overall theme is just that- an attempt by these characters to create music or to dance to it (Once, Whiplash, Sing Street, and, to some extent, even Black Swan are a few recent names I can recollect).
And while one would agree that this bit of narrowing down is much needed to weed out the countless titles of commercial cinema that use songs as fillers and would only ruin a genre which- I believe- is best kept exclusive to the deserving few that truly accentuate the audience’s interest in music as an art form, the down side of having a narrower definition is that one is bound to miss out on atleast a few good films that fall outside its scope.
For quite some time now, a close friend of mine has been trying hard to formally initiate my interest in these films that I have been missing out on (for no apparent reason) - films that are not about people coming together to make music or dance-steps, but films that have stories to tell and only use the medium of songs to tell them, just as most normal films would use dialogue or visual cues.
These are films that belong to a different era, a different time.
A separate form of celluloid. A form that, if I am to go by the word of 'musical' aficionados worldwide, is much richer and purer than the rest.
A form that may well be an acquired taste but is, even so, a taste well worth acquiring.
And having watched La La Land, which is a throwback to the long-gone era of good musicals, I must admit, it is likely that by not honestly attempting to venture into this unfamiliar territory before, I may have kept myself at a loss.
(I say 'honestly' here because I did once try to watch an outside-the-scope-of-my-definition musical. To my misfortune, I ended up picking the worst possible film for doing that: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Fucking terrible is what it was.)
Set in modern day Los Angeles, La La Land is the story of Mia, a struggling albeit talented actress and Sebastian, a jazz pianist who wants to save jazz from extinction even as he struggles to make ends meet.
The two, each passionate about their choice of career, come together over a series of chance encounters / songs to become, what would appear to be, the perfect couple.
That is until problems arise when love and ambition are pitted against one another.
The premise, even if old school, is ripe for a romantic comedy cum drama and the two leads- a broody-looking Ryan Gosling and quirky-as-always Emma Stone- have a chemistry to them that has stood the test of two previously released films already (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad).
Both actors are in top form. Their dialogue delivery feels natural, their physical gestures touching and they even manage to pull off the singing and the dance-steps with admirable panache.
But... but, La La Land is not an actors' film.
Because, though it may be that they have a sizable contribution in its success, the film is about much more than just the couple onscreen.
For a start, it is a reiteration of Damien Chazelle's love for jazz and for cinema in general.
Not only does the director manage to put together some brilliant tunes (Justin Hurwitz as the music director has done an outstanding job again) and some excellently choreographed dance numbers that, combined, could easily compete with the finest songs from up to three decades ago, he does this while also maintaining an originality in his overall treatment that could have easily gone amiss were a weaker person to helm the film.
The camera glides and moves, as only the cameras of Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson and the likes are normally able to.
Most of the scene transitions are effortlessly done.
Also, shot in CinemaScope (Aspect ratio 2.55 : 1), the film has been infused with so much colour and fervent energy in each frame that 'gorgeous' is the only word that comes close to describing my experience of having watched it in IMAX.
Overall, I have no hesitation to give the film a straight five out of five.
I would agree if someone told me that this is mush. But whats more important for me is that this is mush done well.
Catch Trailer here: