Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend
Director: Damien Chazelle
Running Time: 129 mins
Synopsis: In present day LA aspiring actress Mia (Stone) faces daily rejection from the repeated auditions she attends. Meanwhile jazz player Sebastian (Gosling) also dreams big, with plans to open his own jazz bar. Life continuously fires up roadblocks for them both, until they meet and fall in love.
We open in gloriously expanding Cinemascope. The camera pans down from the baking midday LA sunshine onto a gridlocked freeway. Sliding backwards as we hear snippets of the differing music of this hotbed of cultural diversity. We zoom in closer to one such individual. Whether due to the heat or a need to just get moving in this static traffic, she begins to sing a hypnotic melody. Suddenly she leaps out of her vehicle and the tune kicks in big. The shot stays unbroken as more and more participants join the fray, arms stretched, feet moving and voices soaring. The backdoor of a truck opens revealing the swing band inside. Bikes leap over cars, as do some of the players themselves. In this world of honking horns and sweaty automobiles, of differences and misery, we can come together in joy and hope, and just sing baby!! The camera still moves, it rises as the song reaches its euphoric high. This is a world of colour, of heart, of soul. Welcome to Damien Chazelle’s La La Land.
It can be a double edged sword at this time of year. Chomped as it is with Oscar hopefuls, big dramas with even bigger expectations, especially with the frontrunners (which La La Land most definitely is) becoming vastly overhyped through hyperbole and almost deafening chatter. All to easily the film itself suffers from the sheer weight of these expectations, but in this instance (and yes I’m all too aware I am going to be adding to all the noise here) La La Land very much deserves all the love coming to it. As you can tell from the ramble of the opening paragraph, it opens with ballsy confidence. If you are not immediately onboard then it is going to be very hard for you to persevere through the following 2 hours. Needless to say it will take a stone cold person to not full completely in love with the sheer joy on display here.
Ostensibly a romance, as with all the great musicals, things take an unusual turn when the central duo first meet during said opening number, rather than the immediate fantasy notion of love at first sight, Emma Stone’s Mia greets Gosling’s Seb with the finger. These two have got far too much on their minds, her an attempt to navigate the tricky world of Hollywood auditions, him the ever declining love for real jazz, one he wants to kickstart with his own jazz bar. Their stories wonderfully shown one after the other before crashing together in another scene that defies expectations. They do of course meet-cute eventually, in a song and dance sequence filled with spiky banter, flirty chemistry and lovingly bathed fantasy light.
One thing so immediately present in all these scenes is not just the catchy songs (you will be humming this stuff for weeks), the ever moving majesty of the camerawork, or the incredibly palpable chemistry between the twosome (building on their strong work in Gangster Squad and Crazy Stupid Love), but the dynamism of Chazelle’s screenplay. It is witty, compassionate and funny, rolling off the tongues of the committed performers with sparky pace. It continuously challenges expectations, unlike most musicals it starts big and gets consistently quieter, before a final sequence of immense power. Similar to last years Sing Street, it merges the thrill of creativity and the euphoria of its musical numbers with effectively perceptive looks at regret, the challenges of sticking to your ideals, the dark side of being a dreamer and love itself.
As their romance blooms and true happiness seems within reach, it is in their careers that the strains between them show. Both of them dig deep into this material. Gosling finds himself troubled at having to sacrifice his hard-rooted beliefs in order to achieve his dreams, or more accurately how life always gets in the way of lofty fantasies. His usual laconic cheeky charisma showing though with consummate ease. Stone, however, gives arguably the stronger performance of the two. Facing rejection at every turn, her big soulful eyes are a window to the pain within. One late film audition scene is devastating, riveting and beautiful, expect it to be the focus of all the award videos you will undoubtedly see over the next few weeks. Both also handle the singing and dancing with gusto, each not the strongest in both, but it only helps to make their interplay that much more real and warmer.
In only his third film Damien Chazelle has marked himself as a filmmaker of innate skill. Clearly inspired by musical classics such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, he has concocted a film chock full of memorable moments. His use of colour is staggering, each frame draped in bright pastels, streaks of light in just the right places, and a camera that glides as if almost on air. I run out of fingers trying to count all the shots that made my heart sing, from a dance as if amongst the stars framed in gorgeous shadow, to an early film party soaked in water and snow, to the final glorious montage. Said finale is a triumph of heartache, regret, happiness and affection, shot using every tool in the book and edited together in a symphony of majesty. The very end shot is hauntingly beautiful, that I’m tearful just thinking of it.
Now there is a valued argument that this is all just a story of hopelessly good looking and extremely talented people facing their own high ended exclusive troubles. But to agree with this undermines what all film has been doing for years, what is film but a bevy of attractive people in fantasy worlds dealing with issues some face but the majority do not. To do this takes a cynical person, and when the results are this rapturous, this effective and this inspiring who really cares?! Plus with songs of such character and richness it is even harder to deny its charms. Justin Hurwitz composes wonderfully melodic pieces, utilising modern and more classical forms of music to leave you with tunes that seduce the heart as well as the ears. No matter how complicated, tough and disappointing life can sometimes be, as long as you have a song in your heart and a spring in your step then the journey feels ever more worth it. Music can do more than just get your beat going, it can unite us in hope, in sorrow, and in love, La La Land knows this better than any other film I’ve seen.
The lights go dark leaving the sole musician, a pianist at the face of his instrument, bathed in light. He plays a simple note, one which carries with it the past, the future and the road not taken. To one person in the crowd these notes mean a chance to remember what has passed, to mourn that which has been lost and to finally let go. The camera pans on both of these individuals as they share one final look. A look that conveys the love between them. A look that carries with it the life once lived. A look that shows that despite the pain and struggles, it was all worth it. This is Damien Chazelle’s La La Land.
Verdict: A rapturous rhapsody of cinematic joy. Light on its feet but heavy on meaning, a film to give yourself over to. La La Land is a masterpiece.