Without question, cinema has the power to devastate. Some of the most vivid movie memories are those films with an ending that leaves us shaking, crying, or troubled for days. Think of the movies that drove you to tears, broke your heart, or left you unable to sleep. It could be Marley dying at the veterinarian’s office, or Katie touching Hubbell’s hair one last time, or Jake Gittes failing to understand once again how tragic things happen to those who venture into Chinatown. This year, a new movie joins such a storied list of films that devastate…and believe it or not, it’s a musical.
Wait a minute, musicals are supposed to be happy, right? They’re meant to get your toes tapping and ensure you leave the theater humming. Well, that may be true most of the time, but plenty of stories put to song are filled with plenty of pathos too. LES MISERABLES kills off just about every one of its cast of characters by the final reel. In FUNNY GIRL, Fanny Brice doesn’t end up with Nicky Arnstein, even though she worked so hard at getting him back it wasn’t even, well, funny. And did anyone expect a French musical like THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG from the turbulent 1960’s to end on a happy note? Mais non! Not when Michel Legrand’s score cues the melancholy from his opening bars. No, musicals often leave a residue of angst, and if you’ve seen ALL THAT JAZZ, CABARET or even OLIVER, you know what I’m talking about.
Thus, it is with this year as the musical LA LA LAND devastates in its way as well. (Again, if you haven’t seen the film, you might want to jump off here.) Written and directed by Damien Chazelle of WHIPLASH fame, it is a film that is fun and fizzy, yet amazingly devastating in its final analysis. The story concerns two artists trying to make it in Hollywood. Mia (Emma Stone) wants to be an actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) wants to play jazz. They become involved with each other and their love story veers back and forth between scenes that are grounded and scenes that are pure flights of fancy. The scenes that are fantastical are the musical numbers in the film and their singing and dancing together personify their feelings of love for each other or their dreams of success in Tinseltown.