Before the success of Whiplash, nobody wanted to know about La La Land, which director Damien Chazelle wrote and developed with composer Justin Hurwitz years before their Oscar-winning breakout hit when they were studying at Harvard together. At least not without Chazelle, as an unknown, having to make significant compromises to the story he wanted to tell, compromises he quite rightly wasn’t prepared to make. We can only be thankful his vision for this delightfully charming paean to the Hollywood musical was left intact and allowed to flourish with awards and critical acclaim at his back.
Chazelle’s film, much like Whiplash, utilizes music as a form of passion for its protagonists, to drive them toward success, but as the director himself has said, is “much less angry about it”. La La Land‘s lack of that fierceness makes it a less visceral experience than Chazelle & Hurwitz’s previous collaboration, but it’s no less engaging, telling one of the most compelling and charismatic love stories cinema has seen for a long time, framed with a luscious CinemaScope that evokes more of a golden age. In a way, they just don’t make ’em like this anymore.
That’s very much the point. Chazelle makes sure his picture is intentionally anachronistic in places; while he throws a buzzing iPhone at the end of a musical number or a YouTube video here & there, much of La La Land could easily be set in the 1950’s. Ryan Gosling, playing at first uptight jazz musician Seb, spends most of the picture looking every inch the matinee idol of old, while Emma Stone, as quirky barista & wannabe actress Mia, resembles a mix of a young Debbie Reynolds fused with a touch of Catherine Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, one of Chazelle’s recognised touchstones. They are in a sense timeless and play their central roles as such.
What they also have, in absolute spades, is magnetic chemistry; it’s telling that there are almost no major supporting roles in this movie, save musician John Legend as a band leader who comes to Seb’s rescue, and it’s a testament that Gosling & Stone hold the centre perfectly without anyone flanking them. Gosling has the deadpan self-obsession to complement Stone’s self-deprecating sweetness perfectly, and you’ll be utterly sold by them as a romantic couple, with all of the ups and downs their characters experience. They’re equally good when they break into song.
Don’t forget, this is ultimately a musical. Admittedly toward the final third it veers more into drama as Seb & Mia’s lives grow more complicated together, and the tone naturally becomes a trifle more serious and somber than the perky opening hour as a result, but Chazelle & Hurwitz always bring things back to the music. After a bravura opening piece on an LA freeway involving traffic jam passengers, Gosling and Stone get a melee of solo numbers their own dance numbers, in the vein of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, to tap their way across Chazelle’s heightened reality frame to; it’s not just a musical but a romantic fantasy, one Chazelle is unashamed by – Seb at one point asks what’s wrong with being a romantic.
It’s a much a love letter to the dying art of free form jazz as the Hollywood dream, as Seb’s determination to ‘save’ jazz parallels Mia’s aspiration to make it as an actress. It’s a fantasy about dreams, about hopes and desires, all wrapped up in a romantic fantasy with a strong message: that it takes a partnership, and the love of someone who believes in you, to make life a success. All of which is conveyed through the music, and heavily via Hurwitz’s centre-point piece ‘City of Stars’, which repeats as a motif very much for emotional effect. If you’re not choked by the last ten minutes, even just a little, you may have been watching a different film.
La La Land is a throwback but one which utterly deserves the plaudits thrown its way, as it’s a picture very much self-aware of what it’s trying to do. Damien Chazelle’s love of this long dead genre shines through in a script which develops a beautiful modern, and yet timelessly old fashioned romance between Seb & Mia, coaxing a gorgeous set of performances from Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone, who radiate charm and easy going chemistry. His direction is slick, vivacious, knowing and with a twinkle in the eye, while Justin Hurwitz’s score and original songs, plus his use of jazz, is just sublime. For a point it conveniently forgets it’s a musical, and it lacks the bone shattering power of Whiplash, but La La Land is a pure, shining delight of a movie, and revels in harkening back to a timeless era of cinema. For that alone, we should be glad it exists.
★ ★ ★ ★1/2
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