Tapping into nostalgia and irony, a never better Emma Stone dazzles in this ode to Hollywood musicals
La La Land pulls off an incredible sleight of hand that elevates it from merely a gorgeous film into an interesting one. Its narrative twists are almost foreshadowed right at the very beginning, where a film that’s all about song and dance and the wonders of Hollywood opens with sweaty Los Angelenos stuck in static traffic on a motorway overpass. All at once, as movie musicals are wont to do, the bumper-to-bumper commuters burst from their cars and into song, breaking into an epic piece of choreography and melodious chorus, cheerfully singing about the sustenance of an exhausting dream, the realities of failure, and how when every day is the same, “It’s another day of sun.”
The song hints at the story to follow, a tale with more ups and downs than the Hollywood hills. Damien Chazelle, writer and director, centres La La Land around Mia, an auditioning actress and barista played by Emma Stone, and Sebastian, a pianist in the shape of Ryan Gosling, a jazz bro whose artistic integrity sees him believe playing Christmas carols at a bar for a buck is beneath him. Both are caught on the freeway, Mia in her Prius where she’s struggling to remember the lines she’s learning, and Sebastian in a classic sedan, laid out with a tape deck and other hipster trappings. Each of their choices reads true of millennial affectations, reminding us that although this film adores aping the style and trimmings of the great and not-so-great studio musicals of the 50s, its corniness is also immediately appealing to those whose knowledge of the genre is a bit more Glee than Jacques Demy.
From road rage to some enchanted evening, with some scene stealing by a cameoing JK Simmons in between, the two will fall in love. That their version of love involves evening strolls through a violet-tinged twilight and literally spinning through the stars is a deliberate nod to the everyday perfection of LA. The film’s four chapters, each linked to a season of the year, ironically teases this, with the weather never changing.
La La Land at first appears to be a stunningly designed piece of sentimental schmaltz, a glorious feast of colour and sound. It soon shows itself to be sprinkled with as much saltiness as sparkle. Endless days of rejection and debasing your ideals may be sunny, but force the two lovers to realise that there’s a reason why everyone on the freeway was riding alone in their car, chasing their own dreams of creative passions and fame and fortune. Creative knocks butt heads with the costs of success, the pair’s professional lives pivoting away from what they want or don’t know how to want, presenting new challenges and opportunities. Here’s to the fools who dream.
That burst of energy right at the beginning also begins to fade away. Although immediately followed by another big group set piece and a charming song about not falling in love that’s all about falling in love, Chazelle flips the disc, with the B-side that dominates the film filled with melancholy and ballads. Instead, the film becomes wistful, and those expecting razzamatazz might well be overwhelmed by a few Zzzzs as the film slows down. But it is in these moments that Gosling and Stone do their most affecting work. Gosling’s Sebastian is annoying and appealing, his frustrations barely contained under the layer of pretention he presents. Stone, on the other hand, radiates charm and fragility, a down on her pluckiness that comes to a head in the wonderful song Audition.
John Legend, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star in La La Land [Lionsgate]
Neither of them is a perfect dancer nor a particularly accomplished vocalist, but the naturalism of their musical performances plays perfectly against the fabrication of everything else around them. What Stone and Gosling are undoubtedly is movie stars, magnetic and captivating. They carry the undeniable weaknesses of the plot and brush them aside with some soft shoe.
Chazelle, who made the ultimate sports movie for non sports fans with Whiplash, masterfully directs this, conducting the measure and pace of the film perfectly, toning it down to build towards a big finish. And when that final sequence kicks off, a bittersweet turn on what was, what is and what might have been, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the majesty of the cinema. They may not make ‘em like they used to, but we could all get used to this.
VERDICT: ★★★★★ A gloriously modern piece of nostalgia that taps right into the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood, La La Land is as funny as it is honest
La La Land (PG/128mins) is released nationwide on January 13th