Director: Damien Chazelle Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone Running Time: 128 minutes
Having been subjected to months of hype and subsequently inevitable backlash, it has been almost impossible to go into La La Land without expectations being shaped one way or another. Is it truly the greatest thing since sliced bread, is it a musical for people who don’t like musicals, does it deserve the onslaught of accolades or is it merely the dreaded “Oscar Bait”, to be forgotten as soon as everyone files out of the Dolby Theatre on February 26th? That label and the associations that go with it, that La La Land is deliberately designed at every level to take home Academy Awards, are cynical accusations to make, but we live in cynical times. That is what makes La La Land such an appealing throwback, an abandonment of reality that shows its beautiful stars pursuing and achieving their dreams in the brightest light possible. There’s not much of our real world in struggling actress Mia’s massive apartment decked in classic film posters, or on the various, impossibly romantic dates she shares with jazz fanatic Sebastian. Reality is the antagonist of La La Land, right from the opening where dozens and dozens of motorists abandon an LA gridlock for a showstopping musical number, through Mia’s numerous, disastrous auditions and Seb’s jazz dogmatism setting him back over and over, reality is what the characters are trying to overcome to find happiness.
It will be interesting in years to come to pair this film with Whiplash, the previous credit of director Damien Chazelle. In many ways, the films are two sides of the same coin, taking a pessimistic and optimistic look at the desperate attempts of artists to succeed. Where Whiplash was focused on attaining perfection to a suffocating degree and was directed like it, here the filmmaking is no less technically proficient but much more celebratory. Its unbroken takes reflected its character’s stubbornness and the uncomfortable feeling of its audience. Here, the fashionable one-takes are there because, hell, why would you want to look away from choreography as good as this? Chazelle is still an unquestionable show off, but the confidence is well placed. Shooting on a Panavision 35mm lens, Chazelle turns up the bright, beautiful colours, again looking to keep reality at bay (note Emma Stone’s turn to more muted colours during her shifts at a coffee shop, or when she abandons Hollywood to move back in with her parents). The unreal Los Angeles skyline, a purple twilight Prince himself would have been proud of, make a perfect backdrop for plucky Mia and surly Seb to fall for each other over a song and dance session.
They begin with hostility, bumping into each other all over the city from freeway road rage to a post firing snub from Seb to Mia’s revenge, needling the pretentious artist as he performs for a cover band at a party. As anyone who’s seen the films that have inspired this one knows, any pairing that are this good at hating each other are destined to fall in love, and both Stone and Gosling have the chemistry to make their sniping spark. We follow their relationship through the seasons (wryly captioning each season, including winter twice, always against the blistering LA sun) as they both encourage each other to follow their dreams. It’s telling that Mia falls for Seb’s music before she even sees who’s playing it, his musical skill even more effective at winning her over than that heart-clenching smirk. He needs someone to impress, to wax lyrically about jazz to and to get him focused on how exactly he’s going to go about opening that jazz club of his. In a world of disastrous auditions, indifferent bosses and competing friends, she needs absolutely anyone to believe in her and push her to create for herself. But in putting energy into pushing each other, each living vicariously through the other and swept up in a romance so frankly visualised that they’re literally dancing on air through the Griffith Observatory, is there room for them to succeed themselves? Can their relationship and their ambitions co-exist?
This is the third time Stone and Gosling have been matched up in a film and their chemistry goes a long way in establishing the charm of La La Land. Are they the greatest singers or dancers of all time? No, but neither one outshines the other, which helps, and they’re a comfortable, winning pairing. Gosling brings an enchanting aura of confidence, a passionate young man who knows what he wants and knows how to turn on the charm. His comic timing, sharpened over the last few years with the sarcasm from The Big Short and the haplessness of The Nice Guys is well used too, particularly as Seb and Mia trade barbs. It’s a difficult character to get exactly right, considering his ego, and the ‘selling out’ subplot featuring John Legend as a jazz innovator who tempts Seb with the promise of a steady job will inevitably rankle some. There’s the definite self-important drive of a Chazelle character there, but Gosling adds humble shades. Emma Stone meanwhile knows when to play up her pluck and when to come across as utterly without hope, a story about dreaming only ever as good as a lead’s ability to show how far away that dream might be. If nothing else, Seb knows how good he is. Mia doesn’t, and Stone brings that to the fore with her performance. If Anne Hathaway could sweep awards for four minutes playing to the gallery in Les Mis, Emma Stone’s emotional, exposed solo song will be hard to beat.
The layout of the songs is interesting. Chazelle starts with the biggest number and scales them back further and further until it’s just Mia, alone, the imaginary spotlight drowning out everything else. Some may be left wanting more, but the songs have a nice variety to them, and the jazzy compositions of Justin Hurwitz paired with the lyrics of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul go from buzzing with energy to suitably serene, building up to a wonderful epilogue that retells the whole film in a more idealised fashion and puts the focus fully on the music (and Mandy Moore’s choreography [not that Mandy Moore]) while recalling classic, abstract musical endings like An American in Paris and others.
There’s nothing especially daring about making a film about the Hollywood struggle and submitting it to Hollywood people who are voting on which films are the best. But it’s ambition, not daring, which Chazelle strives for, and considering his previous films it would be disingenuous to claim that this subject matter isn’t personal to the director, whose own passion shines through and makes La La Land the joyful triumph it is. Chazelle plays big and loud, but he knows to keep it grounded in the characters, to make their goals worth investing in, to bring the sudden, sobering whiplash (if you’ll forgive) of conflict to this idealised world. When Mia and Seb fight, it’s petty and personal. Arguing at the dinner table, they’re talking over jazz, which is what Mia said all people did with jazz really. Reality, creeping in again, where it’s not wanted. Reality keeps telling Mia and Seb that they can’t win in the fight for their dreams. It gets its bittersweet blows in in the fight, but in their final glance at each other as the film closes, they show they know better.(4.5 / 5)