‘La La Land’: The Musical as a Mechanism

Often when I’m watching a musical that was written for film rather than adapted from the stage, I find that my enjoyment begins to wane around the middle of the run time. It seems to me that someone in the creative chain – whether it’s the writer, director or producer – must feel that, in order for the film to have dramatic staying power, the music must take a sideline to the story line until after the climax of the piece, and then it may return for a musical finale. 

A good example is Disney’s Frozen, which is jam packed with music in the beginning, but by the time we reach the song “Fixer Upper” toward the middle, we’ve completely run out of music for the rest of the show. The musical pacing of the piece is mostly fixed with the Broadway adaptation, which adds more than 10 new numbers, six of which come after “Fixer Upper.” Again, I don’t know which link in the creative chain is to blame for cutting movie musicals’ legs out from under them, but it’s a problem that musicals written for the stage do not have. 

I found myself facing this problem recently during my first viewing of Damien Chazelle’s 2016 movie musical La La Land. The movie opens with a direct and beautifully done homage to the golden age of movie musicals, going so far as to be “brought to you in Technicolor.” The striking way the filmmaker perfectly captured the feeling of a classic movie musical – from the colorful costuming to the feeling of live performances being done on soundstages – was matched by the stunning camera work. 

One sequence that blew me away right from the beginning was a long, uninterrupted shot of Emma Stone’s character, Mia, walking in slow motion through a lavish party. As the music slowly ramps back up to speed, the camera tilts up to catch a man jumping off a balcony into a swimming pool, and even jumping into the water with him as the music reaches its climax. 

I was completely enamored of the movie during its first half, but as we reached the third act, I began to feel uneasy as I realized it had been a while since we’d had a musical number. The visual storytelling had changed toward the middle of the film as well, feeling less and less like a golden age musical by the scene. 

Suddenly we were in a dark apartment with muted colors, and the camera was cutting between Stone and Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian – back and forth as their relationship unraveled. It may have been the most cuts per minute in the film up to that point. Until then, it had made heavy use of long, uninterrupted cuts. 

I started to wonder whether I was missing something. Had the creative chain broken once again as the movie moved toward its climax? Was this just another movie musical that felt that, in order to tell a “real” story, the musical numbers had to take a back seat, rather than being the vehicle that tells that story? 

And then the music came back, and it completely floored me.

There is nothing I love more than when a piece of fiction sows seeds of doubt in my mind, then flips the script and makes me realize that those seeds were planted intentionally. The final minutes of La La Land are so masterfully executed that I gasped audibly when the credits rolled.

Musicals use song to open a window into the characters’ emotions, but every once in a while, a piece comes along that uses the music as a mechanism to give greater meaning to the narrative. In La La Land, the music isn’t a reflection of the characters’ emotion, but rather, it’s their passion. 

Mia and Sebastian are full of passion in the beginning of the film. Sebastian is in one of the lowest spots of his life, but his passion for jazz is stronger than ever. Mia still has a spark of passion that keeps her auditioning over and over again, despite hitting a wall of rejection. By the middle of the film, Sebastian begins to pull himself out of his financial hole by performing music that he hates, and Mia’s theatrical spark is snuffed out after a long line of disappointments. The color has faded from the film, and the music is gone.

The first song we hear after this musical drought comes from Mia taking one last stab at being an actor, and after watching her be rejected during a dozen auditions already, we see her begin to sing. Her song shows us that the passion has returned. The casting director sees that passion, too, and she gets the role of a lifetime.

Five years later, when Mia and Sebastian cross paths and see how each other’s lives have turned out in the meantime, we are presented with the culmination of everything we’ve seen thus far. The color returns to the world, and the film ends with one last blast of golden age musical splendor. The ending is bittersweet, but the moment when you realize that this film used its musical numbers not only to tell the story, but also to frame its storytelling, is pure magic.