The made-for-the-screen musical (not one which is adapted from a Broadway hit) is a loving homage to Hollywood musicals of yore and the film musicals of French director Jacques Demy (notably, “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” with Michel Legrand’s “I Will Wait for You” starring a very young Catherine Deneuve.) It’s easy to fall in love with it, right on its opening scene when people stranded in a traffic jam in a clogged L.A. freeway get out of their cars and start singing in a big and sprightly production number, “Another Day of Sun”. Although the story is set in the present, the film has the feel of classic Hollywood musicals that starred the likes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.
The film is also a tribute to jazz (just like “Whiplash”), with the lead male character, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), being a jazz musician who passes his love of jazz to his leading lady, Mia (Emma Stone), and we get to hear various types of jazz in the film. Composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricist Benj Pasek and Justin Paul deliver a long playing soundtrack of uplifting, hummable songs, one of which, “City of Stars”, already won best song in the Golden Globes. The choreography by Mandy Moore (she’s from “Glee” and different from the actress with the same name) also achieves a great balance of doing familiar dance moves given a new dressing.
The story is the usual boy-meets-girl then complications ensue. For this to work, you have to have good, charming actors and there’s no doubt that Gosling and Stone certainly fill the bill as they’ll surely enthrall you with their winning moves. Gosling’s frustration and impatience are persuasive, but even more so is his skill in playing the piano with different styles on the keyboards (just like Miles Teller as the drummer in “Whiplash”). Stone is delightful to watch as the wide-eyed aspiring actress who’s so emotionally vulnerable and is able to shift emotional gears in a jiffy.
The film is divided into five chapters based on the seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, then back to Winter but five years later. Mia works as a barista in a cafe at the Warner Bros. backlot. She sings that she’s “someone just waiting to be found” as she’s been joining a lot of auditions but is always rejected. Seb is an expert pianist and he’s tired of playing music in bars as he loves jazz, saying he’s “a phoenix rising from the ashes”. The few times they first meet, Seb is rude to Mia, but when he admits his feelings for her, they do a magical, effervescent musical number singing and dancing in the Hollywood Hills. The song and dance transcend mere dialogue and transform it into something purer and closer to pristine screen romance.
The film requires a lot from the two leads, who, we didn’t know, both sing and dance so well and adeptly handle both their dramatic and hilarious scenes that keep the narrative skipping breezily. Chemistry is important here and sparks do fly when they’re together on screen, especially in musical sequences that start with natural settings then turn into fascinating fantasy backdrops and romanticized set pieces.
But just as their careers get its respective boost (Mia is cast in a movie to be filmed in Paris, Seb goes more commercial and joins a successful band led by John Legend that goes on tour), their relationship is consequently affected. Unlike most musicals with a feelgood happily-ever-after ending, this one differs and comes up with a long postscript (which is more of a fantasy sequence) that is reminiscent of a similar poignant ending in Olivia Lamasan’s “The Mistress” that showed how things might be in another movie.
The movie is also a homage to Los Angeles and its surroundings, like a date at the Rialto Theatre in Pasadena to watch a revival of James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause” that leads to a visit to the Planetarium at the Griffith Observatory which is part of the movie. All these scenes look great on screen, especially the fantasy sequence showing the leads flying around, thanks to cinematographer Linus Sandgren who filmed most of the musical scenes in Cinemascope in long, unbroken takes.
The question now is whether this film made with a bygone style of moviemaking will succeed in attracting young viewers who are now more attuned to a different kind of music. Well, no doubt, the Golden Globe awards it has won will help attract more audiences. Made at a budget of $30 million, it’s been 5 weeks on release and has so far earned $55 million, and counting. With its sure nominations in the Oscars, no doubt it will maintain its legs at the box office and we won’t be surprised if it would ultimately reach the $100 million mark.