La La Land
Jake Richardson | 15/12/2016
With La La Land, Damien Chazelle brings back the charm of old-school musicals to create one of the most affecting, endearing and downright fun movies of the year.
With his first film since his breakout Whiplash, Chazelle hasn’t rested on his laurels and made a superhero film, or some other relatively safe entry. Rather surprisingly, he has tried to reignite the long-dead (or at least comatose) genre of Hollywood musicals. Even more surprising is that he succeeded.
La La Land follows two star-crossed lovers. Mia (Emma Stone) a small town girl who has moved to Hollywood to try and start an acting career. In between her many (failed) auditions, she works at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz-loving pianist who, after being swindled in a deal for his dream Jazz Club only to see it made into a Tapas restaurant, is taking any gig he can as a session musician. What follows is an endearing, music-filled romance that ends in the vein of some of the great romances of old (Casablanca is a particular comparable), and doesn’t shy away from the inevitable difficulties of two people, in love, chasing two very different dreams.
Gosling is great as Sebastian. He starts as every bit the jaded cynic, who, having lost his club, can barely stand to speak to anybody. He isn’t paying his rent, he can’t bear to play Christmas carols in restaurants and when he first gets approached by Mia he barges into her without even hearing what she has to say. Gosling really owns the transition from this grouchy persona into a passionate die-hard when he first takes Mia to a Jazz bar. His enthusiasm carries what would otherwise be a disconcerting change of pace for the previously dour Seb.
Stone is even better as Mia. Watching her act is like watching the Sistine Chapel be painted. She is innocent and doe-eyed, and you immediately feel for her. Her story is one that has been treated with such cynicism in recent years by innumerable media outlets; the starry-eyed actress from a small town who tries it big in Hollywood, only to put on a one-woman show. The tropes are all there, but Chazelle’s script and Stone’s earnestness sell it and make it feel fresh, because indeed it is; we haven’t seen a genuine, earnest look at this character type for many years. Watching Stone cry on a dime is a joy, and she really infuses Mia with so much heart that you have to feel for her.
Stone and Gosling have an indisputable chemistry. They are electric on screen together, and the disenchanted Seb is the perfect foil to the
upbeat Mia. Like the great musical romances of old, you are immediately invested in their future.
However, despite the strong lead performances, the film really is Damien Chazelle’s. He fills every line of dialogue with his passion for this by-gone genre. The opening musical number is stunning; a 50’s set piece lifted out of that decade and dropped onto the off-ramp of an LA freeway. The ending shots are beautiful and heartbreaking in equal measure. Chazelle, and cinematographer Linus Sandgren, utilise long takes to great effect in achieving that fresh-off-the-stage feel to the film, adding to the realism of each performance.
Chazelle’s story is also deeply moving. It encapsulates what so many people fear, in that Gosling’s Seb is a passionate die-hard with a dream, who finds a steady paycheck doing something else and settles into that life. When Mia pushes him to keep fighting for his dream, he pushes back. Why should he give up a steady paycheck for a pipe dream? His saving grace is that he realises his mistake when Mia follows his lead and gives up on her dream, and together they find a way to make the impossible possible.
La La Land is just magical. From the performances to the direction to the set pieces, every little scene leaves you with a smile on your face. Whether it is Mia and Sebastian gliding through the sky after transcending the physical restrictions of the Griffith Observatory, or Seb wearing hammer pants as he plays at a party, Chazelle has crafted a film of pure joy. The picture is complimented by Justin Hurwitz’s score, which combines upbeat musical theatre pieces with music more reminiscent of Gosling’s side-project Dead Mans Bones. Don’t be surprised if you see him taking home an Oscar for best song this year.
La La Land is a rare thing; an original sophomore picture from a promising young director that transcends the modern tendency for doom, gloom and grit to give the audience a truly passionate, joyous film with incredible performances from the two leads. A must see.