It is too rare to find a film so genuinely sincere yet modern, that is so joyous and fun yet self-aware, that cynicism can’t take it down. When you come out of the cinema, it’s hard not to be taken up with this concoction of romantic nostalgia and 2016 neo-stardom, that you will leave the cinema with such an euphoric high (with a touch of melancholy) that will hang onto you longer than most other films. This might be overpraise. The film is by no means perfect, but what does perfection got to do with it? A dream project of Damien Chazelle, the director/writer of the phenomenal jazz-drummer-thriller Whiplash, has simply outdone himself and then some.
La La Land, the affection term for Los Angeles and its starry-eyed citizens, who have drunk the kool-aid of possible stardom, is a jazz-infused musical about a struggling actress/barista Mia (Emma Stone), who is a long term veteran of the Hollywood game, already bored by the Hollywood parties and crushed dreams. After her latest rejection, she starts to randomly encounter jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling), a native Angeleno who is struggling to pay the rent, and realise his dream of bringing the back by owning his own Jazz music joint and putting the classics back on. What follows is a romance where they start fall head over heels, with a bit of tap dancing, for each other, but what happens when their ambitions and life circumstances get in the way of their special duet?
The music is the key understanding this film, which is a redundant statement because it is a musical, but let’s continue. There are many people who are critical of the script (this needs to be pointed out, La La Land is as much about modern jazz as An American in Paris is about 1950s post-WW2 French Art Scene), that its remarkableness isn’t in the narrative but how the film is so totally inspired by music. There is a real skill in a screenplay to not just callback and revise musicals from the past, but that it is an effective emotional springboard for magnificent sequences of music, colour, dance and acting. The music sets the tune, and Justin Hurwtiz (and the lyrics from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) brings an inventive, memorable score that takes from classic musicals of the 40s/50s, to the French New Wave musicals of Jacques Demy in the 1960s.* The score isn’t afraid to reuse and revise themes, use and discard its homages to the past, to hit a particular moments with a flexibility of emotion, from regret to joy, whether the song is sung or danced to. It might not be jazz, but it feels like it, with a playfulness moving in sync with orchestral heights, and some really inspired jazzy sojourns.
It is a product of supreme craftsmanship, and the score works in tandem with Damien Chazelle’s direction and vision, making it hard to separate how well all talents behind the scenes and how their contributions (with choreographer ‘Not that’ Mandy Moore and costume designers Mary Zophres) work together to make this world come alive, especially in their song, music and dance sequences. From ‘Mia and Sebastian’s Theme’ underscoring the tenderness of the love story throughout, reappearing as romantic, lovely and haunting all at the same time, to the unbridled joy of ‘Another Day of Sun’ (though not unaware of disappointment from dreams, still continuing on as it is a sunny day) where multi-coloured dancers block traffic to open up the show, and make sure that you know this a musical and not ashamed. From the emotional thump of ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’, where Emma Stone gives a deep, impactful solo by way of manifesto to LA’s ‘fools’, and finally, to the keynote track ‘City of Stars’, where the films optimism is rooted in the delicate time between finding love and maybe losing it. The film’s central concerns are very modern, a fairy tale that knows it is one, and therefore doesn’t lose sight of the arrogance and heartache associated with making dreams come into reality. What is truly at risk when you give the La La Land dream all your soul, and what regrets can you live with? Chazelle answers with one of the best finales committed to film in the 21st Century, an accomplishment that still lives in memory with his own spin on Gene Kelly’s dreamscapes.
Damien Chazelle supplies his vision with a virtuoso technical prowess of form, and a fine skill for blocking the actors in the frame, which he uses many, pulsating long-takes to make extravagant sequences… for lack of a better term, sing. If the film lives to music, why can’t the camera and the editing do as well? Working with cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, they make the modern, day-to-day into a grounded dream, the film never breaks its spell on you. Tom Cross (also coming back from Chazelle’s Whiplash, which he won the Best Editing Oscar for) also lends his hand to help craft the journeys of the characters, that in as much singing cuts to the heart of it all, he cuts at the right moments to get the actors maintain the illusion of romance the film puts on you.
Emma Stone (with very much Oscar worthy performance) and Ryan Gosling, a pairing from remarkably entertaining Crazy. Stupid. Love. and lesser effort Gangster Squad, are not the stars of yesteryear as all-round singing, dancing entertainers, but they’ve got joie de vivre and chemistry. If you want to feel love, this film will meet you halfway. They bring out the characters differing sensitivities, desires, make them individuals first so that the love they share is more vivid. It also refreshing to see a relationship that can exist both in song and in normal dialogue, both within magic hour dance-sequences of purple or conversing under red or green lights of Seb’s apartment is at once normal and magical. It is never hard to feel joy when they feel joy, to feel sad when they feel sad, that they are living humans within a genre that is done badly often, is something to celebrate.
There is so much more to say, but so much that can’t be said. It’s an experiential journey, a feast for the eyes and for the ears as you yearn to be a part of this tough, but candy coloured land. The story of La La Land seems simple, some would say predictable, but it is more complex than you think. It’s caring but not sentimental, it’s lovely but not insufferable, that we believe in all the dreams that the characters follow. You have to be optimistic, take life on the chin when it lets you down, and let the music play on. ‘Another Day of Sun’.
RATING: FIVE STARS.
*On a personal note, I was already going to love La La Land as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, my joint favourite film of all time with Once Upon A Time In The West, was a significant influence on the film. From Lionsgate’s press release: “Demy’s probably the single biggest influence not just on this movie but on everything I’ve done or wanted to do,” Chazelle admits. “There’s no more formative movie for me than Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. That’s a profound love that I’ve had.”