La La Land tells a familiar story in a hugely entertaining way
In just two films, Damien Chazelle has announced himself as one of the boldest, most unashamedly old-fashioned directors of his generation. After achieving Oscar-glory with Whiplash, a blistering thriller set in the unique world of jazz drumming, Chazelle is back with another love letter to jazz that’s sweeping the awards season. A full-blown musical, La La Land is an energised, entertaining homage to the history of Hollywood that’s struck a chord with audiences across the world, despite ultimately telling a rather familiar story.
After a ‘Presented in Cinemacope’ title card and a traffic jam-set dance number, La La Land introduces us to our two leads: Emma Stone’s Mia, a barista and wannabe-actress, and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian, a grumpy jazz pianist too snobby to hold down a job. After a few chance encounters (which turn hostile quickly), Mia sees Sebastian forced to play in an 80’s cover band (lighten up, ‘Take On Me’ is a classic!), and realises they’re both pretty similar. A song, dance, and waltz through the stars later, the two fall in love. With potential stardom looming for Mia and the prospect of selling out to a pop band for Sebastian, will the two star-crossed lovers stick together until the final reel?
Musicals are among the most divisive of genre films – it’s rare to find someone who feels completely neutral about all singing, all dancing – but La La Land is certainly the most crowdpleasing, ‘you’ll like this even if you hate the rest’ musical to be released in decades. Bizarrely, this might be down to the fact that for long stretches of the film, Chazelle seems to entirely forget he’s directing a musical. Once the mid-section of the film focuses on Stone’s disillusion at her failing career and Gosling’s jaunt as a keyboard player for the surprisingly capable John Legend, the songs completely stop (Gosling and Legend perform, but it’s a live concert performance, not a musical interlude). This actually works in the film’s favour; as a musical, it’s very much a mixed bag.
Most have praised Chazelle’s flashy camera movements and extremely long takes, but I found that his non-stop energy behind the camera added little, except to distract from the otherwise patchy music on offer. The opening scene, in which dozens of dancers sing and dance atop parked cars in an unbroken long take, is impressive on a technical level, yet serves no purpose other than proving it can be done, and the song itself is forgettable. Though the full-on camera style often provokes the desired thrills in the same way it did two years ago during Whiplash (especially in capturing Gosling’s mad piano playing), sometimes you can’t help but wish he’d calm down. When Emma Stone sings a show-stopping ballad in one take, keep the camera on her face; there’s no need to twirl around her whatsoever.
While there are good songs to be found within (not least City of Stars, which sticks in your head for days), the real appeal of La La Land is seeing Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone reunited for the first time since the patchy Gangster Squad. Two of the most effortlessly charming actors of their generation, Gosling and Stone’s chemistry and infectious enthusiasm carries the film even when their voices can’t. Neither are likely to gain major record deals off the back of this, but their rough-around-the-edges vocals gives the film a relaxed, laidback vibe that nicely counterbalances the frenzied filmmaking on display. Similar to his performances in Crazy, Stupid Love and The Big Short, Gosling is casually confident with a pinch of intensity. It’s hardly a struggle for him to play this character, nor is Stone playing against type as a wide-eyed, sassy career girl, but both fit the roles perfectly.
As has been proven by its success at the box office and its record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, it’s hard not to be a little bit swept away by the sunshine and positivity of La La Land. Say what you want about Damien Chazelle; he set out to make an awe inspiring, old-fashioned musical, and he more than succeeded. At just 31 years old, he looks likely to win Best Director, and his film is undoubtedly going to be a big winner on the night. However, looking past the technicolour and the sweet romance, La La Land could have slowed down a little, shifting its focus to the smaller but poignant scenes. Tap-dancing under moonlight and climaxing in a melancholic, Casablanca-referencing montage is great. Emma Stone lipsyncing to ‘I Ran (So Far Away)? That’s pure magic.
By Harry J. Ford
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