LA LA LAND
Reviewing this mere days after George Michael's death is bittersweet.
The soundtrack to La La Land wants to sweep you into romance, but the romance is really about the romance of dreams and not just love. Likewise, many mourn the unexpected passing of the British singer because he represents their own ephemeral youth, the fulfilment of dreams and unrealised ones, as well as the difficulty of growing up.
La La Land, then, is an anachronistic beauty. It harkens back to Hollywood musicals of the last century (boy meets girl) and (spoiler alert) deviates from it to highlight the advent of reality (boy and girl do not end up together).
Such is the inevitable lesson of modern-day musicals - reality always lurks around the corner. This century started off with Lars von Trier's tragedy Dancer In The Dark (2000), where Bjork plays a single mother who is going blind and breaks out into song and dance as a way to escape her fate. La La Land, in comparison, is glossier and more old-school, but does not hide the fact that you have to make sacrifices to achieve your dreams.
It strikes a chord with how two young Angelenos - jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) - find each other, fuel each other's dream and ultimately have to part. The soundtrack is escapism, but you are constantly reminded of the gap between make-believe and truth.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, 2013) enlisted his Harvard compatriot Justin Hurwitz (they are both only 31) to create the luxuriously orchestrated score and songs for a film that pays tribute to musicals of yore, including French auteur Jacques Demy's 1960s musicals, where ordinary folk sing and dance in mundane surroundings.
The soundtrack starts with Another Day Of Sun, set in heavy traffic on a Los Angeles freeway, where an ebullient number breaks out from bits of ambient noise as a perfectly choreographed ensemble in neon colours belt out and leap on top of vehicles.
"Summer Sunday nights/We'd sink into our seats right as they dimmed out all the lights/A Technicolor world made out of music and machine/It called me to be on that screen," a woman sings, setting the stage for a story of the ultimate dream-maker: Hollywood. These people are stuck (metaphorically and physically), but they can dream.
When Sebastian and Mia cross paths, their flirtation with each other is awkward and charming. Stone and Gosling do not have great singing chops and this gives their crooning appropriately down- home appeal. They dance and duet on A Lovely Night like millennial versions of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the carpark of Griffith Park, foregrounded against a twinkling Los Angeles at sunset.
The film is anchored by two tunes: namely Mia & Sebastian's Theme and City Of Stars. The theme, melancholy and deliciously so, shadows the ups and downs of the romance as well as the ebb and flow of one's dreams. It is especially breathtaking in Planetarium, where the couple literally float up and waltz among the stars at the Griffith Observatory.
As for City Of Stars, it gets three versions on the soundtrack, with the two leads trading vocal duties. "City of Stars, are you shining just for me?/City of Stars, there's so much that I can't see," sing the two actors, with Stone giggling gently over a soft piano melody.
Purists may bray over their singing, but just like how the Japanese see transient beauty in imperfection, these two affable non-singers don't need varnishing and the film is more moving because of it.