Music to Move the Stars: Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Land’ is a Dizzying Confection of Dreamy Nostalgia

For nearly the past twenty years or so, movie-musicals have seen a resurgence in the public consciousness.  One such film that has done so, and with as much fanfare (or perhaps even more so), is none other than Damien Chazelle’s own ambitious take, La La Land (2016).  Chazelle’s second attempt at a musical (after his debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench [2009]) and the third in an informal trilogy centered around jazz (along with Guy and Madeline and the Oscar-winning Whiplash [2014]), La La Land is perhaps best known for its controversial and precedent-setting tie for Best Picture with fellow nominee Moonlight at the 2017 Oscars (the honor would eventually go to the latter film).  Despite this, the film garnered a record-tying fourteen nominations (alongside classics Titanic and All About Eve) and five Oscar wins that year, and seemed universally hailed as the ode to the grand movie-musical productions of yesteryear.  

La La Land follows two young Angelenos as they struggle to follow their respective dreams: Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who, between auditions, makes ends meet as a barista at a café in the Warner Bros. lot; and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz purist musician who moonlights as both a jukebox pianist at a restaurant and as part of an eighties tribute band (the latter much to his chagrin).  After they meet not-so-cutely at a traffic jam (that most quintessential of Quintessential Los Angeles Locales), Mia encounters Seb again at the restaurant, and yet again at a party Seb’s band plays at.  Over the course of the first act, they start to get to know another, each sharing their individual hopes and dreams.  Snippets of their brief but heady summer romance are heightened through sweeping instrumental sequences and montages (this one taking place at the Griffith Observatory is particularly breathtaking), and when they — spoiler alert! — eventually part ways, we as the audience are heartbroken. Boy-meets-Girl, Boy-falls-in-love-with-Girl, Boy-eventually-loses-Girl.

Admittedly, the film lives up to (some) of its hype.  As the title suggests, La La Land is as dreamy a confection as could possibly be whipped up onscreen: a dizzying whirl of large-scale chorus numbers packed with nostalgic old-school romance (and even old-schoolier, if problematic, notions of jazz).   Just in case you didn’t get the hint already, the film shows you the first of many cinematic vestiges it’ll pay homage to over the next two hours: that of a widescreen title card touting the old Cinemascope logo, setting the tone for what’s to come.  From then on, it’s a flurry of visual allusions to the cinema of olde, with nods to Hollywood’s Golden Age of musicals on film: An American in Paris (1951), Funny Face (1957), A Star is Born (1954), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), West Side Story (1961), Sound of Music (1965), and Cabaret (1972) all get their due here; not to mention the offbeat musicals of the French New Wave, such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Une Femme est Un Femme/A Woman is a Woman (1961), and Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967).

Of these, it is perhaps Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (along with Vincente Minelli’s An American in Paris), which proves to be the strongest influence on La La Land; not only in its storyline but in its music, as well.  Most of the cues taken from Umbrellas are, obviously, the influences of jazz within an operatic structure: Demy’s film (the score for which was composed by the late, great Michel Legrand) is entirely sung-through, punctuated by throaty brass riffs and off-kilter drum beats during moments of high emotion.  It’s this juxtaposition between the old and the new which Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz (previous collaborators on both Guy and Madeline and Whiplash) clearly try to replicate in La La Land, if in a much different way.

Traditionally, musical theatre utilizes music either as a tool to help push the story along, or to propel the fullest expression of a character’s innermost thoughts and feelings, when mere action simply cannot.  There are a couple of pieces that do follow this important tenet, as in the case of ‘A Lovely Night’, a flirty tune that hearkens back to the old “I-Like-Ya-But-I-Ain’t-Tellin’-Ya” musical theatre trope.   However, if we’re talking about expression through song, none get us there quite like the film’s excellent eleven o’clock number, ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’.  Featuring wonderfully-penned lyrics by Dear Evan Hansen and The Greatest Showman hitmakers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, it is La La Land’s most character-driven piece, calling to mind Cabaret’s own passionate, eponymously-titled closer, and undeniably its best song, despite ‘City of Stars’ lamentably chosen as the film’s Best Song nominee.  

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Other musical moments worthy of mention in La La Land (and which duly pay further homage to the movie-musical traditions it pulls from) include: ‘Summer Montage/Madeline’, which bears hints of the ‘A Basal Metabolism’ scene in Funny Face; as well as ‘Epilogue’, a hazy dream sequence which not only makes further blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual references to Funny Face, but also wonderfully evokes the famous dream sequences from both An American in Paris and A Star is Born,‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and ‘Born in a Trunk’, respectively.

Mostly, the music in La La Land works to softly underscore the overall feeling of romance blossoming between the two lovers.  Many of its instrumental pieces, performed by Hurwitz on the piano, do so to great effect.  In particular, ‘Mia and Sebastian’s Theme’, an elliptical, beautifully lilting piece which memorably accompanies the characters’ journey in following their dreams and, hopefully, each other.  Its melody, just like their relationship, seems it might go on forever — that is, until it doesn’t.  Just as with the instrumentals, songs like ‘City of Stars’ — a melancholy duet between Mia and Seb about the heartbreak of ambition in Los Angeles — attempt at some reflective moments, while other songs seem to merely be there to help to establish a time and place or to convey a mood, as in the case of opener ‘Another Day of Sun’.   

The John Legend-led track ‘Start a Fire’ is a straggler, both in terms of its obvious “jazz-pop-fusion” style and in its ability to highlight the characters’ evolving relationship, if deceptively so.  By this point in the film, Seb has accepted an offer by his old friend Keith (played by Legend) to join his band on tour as keyboardist, if a bit reluctantly.  Not only does he have the defense of his purist principles to think about (to which Keith says: “Jazz is about the future”), but there’s also the question of Mia, with whom Seb has now progressed into a live-in relationship.  Still, with Mia’s encouragement, he takes the gig, and it is when the band are back in town that our scene takes place.  In the song’s chorus, Keith proclaims:

We can start a fire

Come on, let it burn, baby

We can start a fire

Let the tables turn, baby

We can start a fire    

It is as typical a pop chorus as any like it: repetitive lyrics rife with trite metaphorical content.  But as pointed out in an episode of the Switched on Pop podcast, the above lyrics — despite the upbeat rhythm with which they are presented — provide the perfect foreshadowing for the following scene in the film, wherein Mia and Seb have an argument.  Home for the first time in months, Seb surprises Mia with dinner at the apartment they share.  They catch up over dinner, and all is well — or so it seems.  When Seb nonchalantly mentions he’ll have to go back on tour again soon, now beholden to the album cycle of contemporary mainstream artists, Mia counters with the question of Seb’s own satisfaction with his work, asking him if he even likes the music he’s playing.  As the argument reaches its apex, the food Seb is still cooking in the oven burns.  Let the tables turn.  Let it burn.

A pretty straightforward reading of a not-so-straightforward song, to be sure, but it marks a turning point in the film’s main thematic arc — and gets to the heart of what makes this movie musical slightly different than its canonic predecessors.  By all appearances, Mia and Seb’s relationship seem poised to follow the fate of the Star-crossed-Lovers trope found in practically every love story since time immemorial.  That they do — however, what makes this story interesting for today’s audience is that the conflict over which the relationship ultimately deteriorates is not that of love for someone else, but rather the love of something else.  

Or, as A.O. Scott put it in his Times review of the film, their romantic dilemma falls under Love versus Ambition:

The real tension in “La La Land” is between ambition and love, and perhaps the most up-to-date thing about it is the way it explores that ancient conflict. A cynical but not inaccurate way to put this would be to describe it as a careerist movie about careerism. But that would be to slight Mr. Chazelle’s real and uncomfortable insight, which is that the drive for professional success is, for young people at the present time, both more realistic and more romantic than the pursuit of boy-meets-girl happily-ever-after. Love is contingent. Art is commitment.”

In this regard, as pointed out by Genevieve Koski in an episode of her podcast The Next Picture Show, the film perhaps more closely owes its debt to American in Paris, wherein the titular American Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) finds himself having to choose between a life of literal security with patron with would-be paramour Milo (Nina Foch) — or go back to his old bohemian lifestyle in order to be with his true love, Lise (Leslie Caron).  And unlike this past year’s hit remake, the Bradley Cooper- and Lady Gaga-led A Star is Born (wherein the two main characters choose both Love and Ambition, to ultimately tragic consequences), La La Land’s characters ultimately choose not each other, but their individual dreams.

This, for all its unabashed affection for the long-lost romanticism of Hollywood’s golden age, is how La La Land sets out to place itself among the 21st-century canon.  Wherever its merits as a movie-musical stand, it is this emotional juxtaposition which at the very least has made much of the film’s surrounding attention just this side of justifiable.  Call it, perhaps, the most Millenial movie-musical of the decade thus far (with the possible exception of Jason Robert Brown’s cult 2001 hit, The Last Five Years, adapted to film in 2014): where the hopes of today’s youth dwell in dreams more down-to-earth, rather than up high in the starry-eyed rapture of true love.      


The Pulchritude of Fosse, Revisited: A Look at Those Famous Jazz Hands—Step-by-Step, Inch-by-Inch, Frame-by-Intoxicating-Frame

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the word pulchritude (one of my personal favorites) is defined simply as ‘physical comeliness’ — and if there is anything that fits that description, it’s director-choreographer-auteur Bob Fosse and his distinctive choreography.  Known now for its emphasis on rounded shoulders and isolated movements, Fosse’s choreography was inspired by what he felt were his own physical shortcomings, which he later spotlighted in his always alluring and always provocative signature style.  Little did he know that as a result, this slight re-contextualization of his supposed imperfections would not only go on to challenge notions of sexuality, conformity, and art but also inspire a bevy of devotees decades later.

In an essay which appeared in the accompanying booklet for the Criterion Collection edition of Fosse’s penultimate and most ambitious work, All That Jazz (1979), New Yorker writer and critic Hilton Als wrote the following:

In any case, Fosse’s imitators are legion; that’s what happens when you give your life to learning something about your own ultimately unexplainable genius.  It must have seemed as if no time had passed, as he lay dying, between that moment and being a boy in Chicago, a born choreographer who worked so hard to articulate, through all those bodies that passed before his discerning, worried eyes, what a shrug meant, what a slide meant, how to contract and then extend in a world that was constantly contracting and extending past the point — seemingly — of human endurance, all the while holding up your gloved hands, those famous Fosse hands, ten digits that, more often than not, the choreographer made look like the instruments that committed original sin, hands that were always grasping for something more dangerous than love, even though there is nothing more dangerous than love, maybe an attitude, one that said, “I don’t care, fuck it.”

It is this exact talent for turning expectations on their head which Fosse later extended into his film-making. From his artful displays of a group of flirtatious taxi dancers in his directorial debut, Sweet Charity (1969); to seemingly cheery vaudevillian numbers satirizing the Nazi regime’s rise to power in Cabaret (1972)’s Weimar-era Berlin; culminating in the harrowing image of a body bag zipped up to Ethel Merman’s rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in All That Jazz — Fosse found how to make the camera dance, in ways that still very much resonate today.  

In fact, one can still see remnants of his influence in modern pop culture — from musical theatre (1996’s Rent, the 2002 Oscar-winning film version of Chicago) to film (2000’s Center Stage, 2006’s Marie Antoinette) to even the realms of pop music (Beyoncé, Christine and the Queens), many are still paying their homage to the late director-choreographer, who died suddenly in 1987.  Most recently, Fosse’s legacy has continued on with the Lin-Manuel Miranda-produced FX limited series Fosse/Verdon, the season finale of which aired just this week.  Centered around Fosse and his wife and muse, dancer-actress Gwen Verdon and stars Academy Award-winner Sam Rockwell and Academy Award-nominee Michelle Williams as Fosse and Verdon, respectively, the show chronicles the couple over the course of their rocky-but-passionate fifty-year marriage.  

I haven’t gotten to check out the show during its original airing, so I’ll definitely be spending the next couple of weeks binging it — and then re-visiting Fosse again with the clips below!  Like Roy Scheider famously said in All That Jazz: “It’s Showtime, folks.”

“Who’s Got the Pain?” (ft. Gwen Verdon), Damn Yankees (1958)

“Big Spender”, Sweet Charity (1969)

“Mein Herr”, Cabaret (1972)

“Everything Old is New Again”, All That Jazz (1979)

“Take Off With Us”, All That Jazz (1979)

“All That Jazz” (ft. Carly Hughes, Jennifer Nettles and Company), Chicago on Broadway (2015)

“All That Jazz” (ft. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger), Chicago on film (2002) 

“It’s Showtime, folks” triptych, All That Jazz (1979)

“Dressing Ceremony” triptych, Marie Antoinette (2006)

“5 Dollars” by Christine and the Queens, Chris (2018)

“Rich Man’s Frug”, Sweet Charity (1969)

“Get Me Bodied” by Beyoncé, B’Day (2006)


Modern Romance: Second Stage Theatre’s ‘The Last Five Years’ Jerks Tears and Tugs Hearts of a New Generation

Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe in “The Last Five Years” at Second Stage Theatre.
Photo © Sara Krulwich

I’ve always felt that, out of the four seasons, Spring was the perfect time to fall in…and out of love.  As many new couples go walk hand-in-hand out on the streets of New York City, blissfully unaware of the day-to-day realities of a relationship they will soon experience, one couple is discovering just that on West 43rd street.  In Jason Robert Brown‘s much-beloved cult favorite The Last Five Years, the exciting beginnings and tumultuous downfall of a relationship is examined with an intimacy as never before seen in a musical since perhaps its own original mounting in 2001 (which was helmed by Daisy Prince).

As a longtime theater-lover, I’d always heard of The Last Five Years — commonly shortened to L5Y — but never in my RENT-obsessed mind had, at the time, thought much of it.  Until, that is, when my friend Michelle at the Super Awesome Broadway Ninjas blogged about it.  At that point, I had been quietly working on what was then a 6-year writing project, which also dealt with the stages of a relationship told through flashbacks.  When I read about L5Y‘s original concept and format I was naturally intrigued and immediately purchased the Original Cast Recording.  I fell in love with Brown’s beautiful music and story — and the rest, as they say, is history.

For the uninitiated, L5Y is told from the perspectives of Jamie Wellerstein (previously portrayed by Norbert Leo Butz, now taken on by Adam Kantor), a novelist and Cathy Hyatt (originally Sherie Rene Scott, now Betsy Wolfe), a stage actress.  Doesn’t sound all that earth-shattering — that is, until you consider the way these characters tell their story: Jamie narrates from the beginning of the relationship, while Cathy starts from the end.  The show is designed as such that each song the characters sing act as interior monologue, and it is the music through which much of the action is derived.  Each scene, while on different timelines, seems to flow effortlessly from one to the next, yet the contrasts in emotion that result are at once striking and powerful.  All this is probably owed to the fact that this 2013 production is directed by none other than its creator, Jason Robert Brown himself.

Brown’s score being the first thing I fell in love with in relation to this show, it seems only appropriate that I talk about it first.  After all, when one mentions L5Y, the music is most likely the first to come to mind to anyone who has heard its score.  It is probably not much of a stretch to suggest that the music could be a third character in the show.  The music is the main device used in order to tell the story, and every emotion is written into each note and lyric with graceful precision, each a piece of the puzzle, having its place and purpose.  This is clearly reflected in the arrangements of the score, under the careful direction of Thomas Murray.

Apart from the beautiful score, it is the performances from each actor that have certainly benefitted the most from having the show’s creator at its helm.  While I have never seen the original production myself, I can say for certain that we’ve found a perfect Jamie and Cathy this time around in Kantor and Wolfe, respectively.  Kantor, who made his Broadway debut as Mark Cohen in RENT, shines as aspiring writer Jamie and fearlessly takes on Brown’s score with some impressive vocal acrobatics, most notably in “A Miracle Would Happen/When You Come Home to Me.”  His Jamie is playful and flirtatious, while still managing to balance all of that out with unabashed romance.  For her part, Wolfe — last seen on Broadway’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood — is adorable and charming as Cathy.  She presents to us a Cathy that is vibrant and strong-willed, yet insecure and vulnerable at the same time.  In short, Wolfe makes her feel real, which helps us as voyeurs further relate and feel an affinity toward the characters as their relationship unfolds.  Her own interpretation of the music, particularly in “A Summer in Ohio” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You,” complements the score in an understated way .  In fact, both performers do exactly that when they finally cross paths on “The Next Ten Minutes,” the scene in which their characters marry and the only one in which they meet on the same point in the timeline.  Their voices softly tread through the waves of strings and piano accompaniment, just as their characters do the same when their own journey enters tempestuous waters not long after.

It wasn’t just the actors’ individual performances or the music that helped to reinforce the theme of a rocky relationship; Derek McLane‘s set designs and Jeff Croiter‘s lighting were minimal but effective, and did a great job at taking us along for the ride.  Everything was done in such a way that felt just right for the show, not just for the purpose of mood and setting, but for the emotional undertaking that is required for a show with such heavy subject matter.  One shining moment for me was the clever way “The Next Ten Minutes” was staged (which I won’t get into here, but if you go see the show, you’ll know what I’m talking about).  Another was “The Schmuel Song,” which had LCD screens help amplify the story-within-a-story.

This time around, The Last Five Years has proved that you can fall in (and out) of love again, as fans both old and new turned out to show their love for the musical.  It is a beautifully rendered piece of theater, one that will without a doubt continue make audience fall in love again and again for generations to come.

The Last Five Years‘ final extension 
runs until May 18th
For more information about this production,