Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend, J.K. Simmons
The classic movie musical, the kind the big studios churned out in the 1940s and 1950s, is largely a thing of the past. These days movie musicals tend to be layered in irony, knowingly winking at the audience in order to acknowledge the inherent silliness of the form. Movie musicals, like everything else, have become postmodern. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, however, harks back to that bygone era. It is striking in how traditional it is, and in how earnestly it embraces its romantic, nostalgic tone.
Like so many great musicals, at the heart of La La Land is a simple story of boy meets girl. The boy is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a talented jazz pianist who makes a living playing Christmas carols and harmless ditties in restaurants while lamenting the disappearance of the great American art form and dreaming of the day when he can open his own jazz club. The girl is Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring young actress who has moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of her dreams and now works in a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot. They meet in a traffic jam, and then at a restaurant, and then at a party, and are drawn to each other. The story that follows is built around the seasons of love: winter, spring, summer, autumn and winter again, as these two young dreamers reach for the stars.
With his last film, the intensely psychological drama Whiplash, writer-director Chazelle showed himself to be a filmmaker with a unique ability to find drama in music. Here, making a completely different kind of film, he demonstrates a seemingly instinctual feel for the musical as a form. The film opens with a bold set piece: a massive, single shot, musical number taking place in a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway in which a chorus of hopefuls sing about their desire to make it big in Hollywood. It is the biggest musical number of the film, with those that follow being much more intimate in scale, usually focused just on our two leads. But through them all, big and small, Chazelle comfrotably engages the visual language of the genre: long takes to show full actions, wide shots to show whole bodies, two shots to show performers working together. He seamlessly transitions in and out of musical numbers, and arranges and frames his dance sequences beautifully, including an impressionist sequence in the third act that reimagines the narrative we’ve just witnessed, harking back to films like An American in Paris.
La La Land marks the third time Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have appeared on screen together (after Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad) and the two have an undeniable chemistry. It will not be lost on audiences, though, that when it comes to singing and dancing we are not watching the next Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. Both are serviceable without being spectacular. Stone’s voice is a bit thin. Gosling has a limited vocal range. The film’s musical elements play within the limitations of its performers never taking them somewhere they are incapable of going. But rather than this being a shortcoming, it is an integral part of the film’s design. Stone and Gosling deliver authentic rather than fantastical performances, which serve to ground the magic and whimsy of La La Land in realism. Throughout the film, Chazelle is constantly playing with this contrast of reality and artifice, naturalism and fantasy. Similarly, La La Land juxtaposes the old and the new. From the film’s opening with an old fashioned Cinemascope logo, this is a new world presented in an old style. One musical number ends with a character’s iPhone ringing. The story takes place in the present but both characters are living in the past, Seb with his love of jazz, Mia with her love of golden era Hollywood, and both characters’ nostalgia is challenged by the need to look to the future.
Composer Justin Hurwitz, who has worked with Chazelle previously on all of his films, has created an airy and whimsical score which includes four or five really catchy and singable tunes (lyrics by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul) which you are guaranteed to be humming to yourself for a couple of weeks after seeing it. But more than just a strong movie musical, La La Land is a great movie. From top to bottom, the whole film is beautifully crafted. From Chazelle’s direction to Linus Sandgren’s cinematography, to the production design by David Wasco and costumes by Mary Zophres, everyone is clearly on the same page, and that results in a film with a perfectly unified vision.
La La Land is a sweet film, a happy film. An homage to the classic studio musicals without being an imitation of them, it is a sincere ode to old fashioned romance. It is not earth-shaking. It is not going to change the world or the way you think. But it doesn’t try to. It is the kind of joyous escapist entertainment the major studios used to specialise in, and which perhaps the world could use a little bit of at the moment.
Review by Duncan McLean
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