Having recently picked up seven Golden Globes, been nominated for eleven BAFTA awards, and been the subject of universal critical acclaim, La La Land is the film on the tip of everybody’s tongue right now. Oh, and it will probably win Best Picture at the Oscars too. Directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), this is a film that bounces off the screen from its euphoric opening scene on the freeway – instantly silencing doubters of its musical qualities. As great as the scene is – it’s just a taster for even more majestic choreography that follows.
See this one on the biggest screen possible, for the setting of a sun-drenched Los Angeles hasn’t looked this good since Drive. It’s the perfect blend of substance and style; and make no mistake, this really is the city of stars, something inhabited by the fantastic two leads. For Mia (Emma Stone), becoming a star is the dream. An aspiring actress, Mia finds herself fluctuating between disappointing auditions and an equally unsatisfying barista job. It’s when Mia meets jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling), that the film takes its frequently foreshadowed romantic turn, and La La Land becomes one of the most absorbing films that Hollywood has churned out in years.
Seb, equally as ambitious as Mia but perhaps more grounded in his approach – wants to open up his own jazz club. Gosling and Stone have perhaps never been better in these roles; their previous on-screen chemistry in Gangster Squad and Crazy, Stupid, Love simply offered a glimpse to the charming charisma that these two have. Although they may not live up to the legacy of old Hollywood icons in terms of song and dance, the two leads here certainly don’t detriment the film’s many qualities. The scene where Seb and Mia first dance – a beautifully lit Mt Hollywood Drive, is utterly transfixing, and one of many which display Chazelle’s knack for a musical number.
Chazelle’s tendency to reflect his passion for jazz music through Seb is hard not to admire, and the scenes shot at The Lighthouse Cafe provide a spot for Seb to project this passion. Credit to Gosling too, who despite ‘knowing a few chords’ undertook jazz piano for the film, which he excels at. Much like Whiplash, the film serves to remind audiences that jazz is simply more than what Mia first dismisses as ‘elevator music’. An early scene with Whiplash’s JK Simmons feels like a not too friendly familiar face, contrasting Seb’s jazz purism which effectively costs him his job. John Legend also shows up later on in a brilliant supporting role, playing a musician who is a spanner in the works for Seb – both creatively and romantically.
There is a real sense of passion in how the film is meticulously handled, and sense of fluency too. Chazelle’s direction is just exquisite, once again convincing that he is one of the finest young directors working in America today. The story moves through seasonal transitions, but again, like Whiplash, Chazelle exercises his technical craftsmanship to swiftly move the story forward. When Seb and Mia’s plans to see Rebel Without a Cause are cut short, a subsequent scene at the famous Griffith Observatory creates pure cinematic nirvana. Not just for the audience either, but for Chazelle too, who has crafted a bravura love letter to Old Hollywood. You can’t help but sense an underlying, perhaps faux sense of hope in such scenes, and this reminder of past glories feels somewhat appropriate in such uncertain times.
Although certain narrative arcs occasionally suspend a sense of realism for the audience, there is an inherent sense of magic in the midst of what unfolds. However, Chazelle is keen to point out that the ambition of the protagonists is both virtuous and problematic in how relationships tend to play out. The films remarkable ending feels fitting, and also a humanistic ending to the 130 minutes of pure pleasure.
Chazelle is clearly infatuated with the Golden Age of Hollywood, and timely visual cues to classics such as Casablanca and Singin’ In The Rain are well suited to a film which feels completely contemporary. Never the less, the film breathes new life into the musical genre, offering much more than just a nostalgic homage, stylistically and thematically. It’s more than just a toe-tapper, it’s an absolute delight for the eyes and ears. It’s a film about song, about dance, but most importantly, about dreams and the consequences that come with them. An absolute masterclass in genre filmmaking, La La Land is impossible to take your eyes off, and nearly impossible not to fall in love with.