The throwback musical hit starring cinema darlings Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling appears to be heading towards a triumphant night at the Academy Awards. With 14 nominations — a record shared with Titanic and All About Eve — La La Land could be the first musical since 2002’s Chicago to dominate the Oscars.
In some respects, La La Land is as classic as musicals get: the film is ripe with romantic tropes from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Gosling and Stone’s contentious courtship is reminiscent of Singin’ in the Rain. Gosling’s Sebastian is even a struggling jazz musician akin to Debbie Reynolds’ aspiring Shakespearean actress, Kathy Seldon. Just as Gene Kelly playfully mocks Debbie Reynolds for jumping out of a cake at a Hollywood party, Emma Stone’s Mia ridicules Sebastian for his part in a cheesy ‘80s cover band. The song and dance of “A Lovely Night” involves Mia and Sebastian all but imitating Fred Astaire’s and Ginger Rogers’ “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)” from 1935’s Top Hat. The fantastical finale of La La Land even borrows a plot twist (and a stylized Parisian set) from An American in Paris.
There is just one hitch in La La Land’s nostalgic potential: Gosling and Stone are no Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In 1978, The Post wrote of Astaire and Rogers, “They were together in 10 movies. They could take a line of Gershwin and put it into braille so you feel it in your soles.” Fans of old-time Hollywood will note this modern-day L.A. musical displays roughly half the raw talent of triple threat performers from the early days.
When describing his favorite role (Jerry Travers in Top Hat), Fred Astaire explained, “Nearly all the other screen musicals had dealt with the backstage problems of their characters. But in Top Hat I played the part of a successful professional dancer whose problems of love and romance came entirely from his private life” (1948). In La La Land, Mia and Sebastian are each aspiring performers, but there is never a sense that either is more or less than a regular person regardless of the success they achieve. Their love story takes place in mostly domestic settings, and Mia finds her “big break” by “playing herself” at an audition.
Many have praised Gosling’s and Stone’s performances as “charming” and “relatable.” The impact of the duo’s chemistry onscreen is unquestionable, and perhaps the song and dance is only supplementary. The two romantic leads will compete in the top acting categories, after all.
Much of the charm in La La Land can be attributed to director Damien Chazelle. The dreamy world of the musical is realized with long, sweeping shots and colorful sets. He has done his Hollywood homework, and it shows. Chazelle wrote and directed Whiplash in 2014, another jazz-centric film about a college drummer with an abusive teacher. The success of Whiplash allowed Chazelle the freedom to pursue an original musical in La La Land. A remake or Broadway transfer is generally a safer bet with studios nowadays given their pre-existing fanbases.
For all the cheery escapism La La Land offers, it will likely compete with two weighty dramas for Best Picture, Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight. The Academy’s pick will be anyone’s guess. Jimmy Kimmel will host the ceremony on Sunday, February 26th, and the night is sure to deliver old Hollywood magic even though Jimmy Kimmel isn’t exactly Bob Hope.