Focusing on a pair of romantics who dare to dream, La La Land writer-director Damien Chazelle has crafted a delirious love letter to the City of Angels in all its traffic-congested, sun-drenched, movie-making glory. Bursting with kinetic energy and boasting magnetic leads who ooze charm, La La Land‘s a swooning, woozy ode to love and cinema that’s drunk on movie magic – its intoxicating buzz lasts for days.
Synthesizing the old and new of Hollywood, Chazelle plays with convention by paying homage to the past while making his story – especially many of the dialogue beats – refreshingly modern. What results is a movie that’s reverent of its forebears but unafraid to take narrative chances. It would have been easy to ape classic musicals and have La La Land follow a predictable template but instead it charts its own path, merrily tap dancing on tradition.
After a stunning single-take opening song-and-dance number (amusingly set on a crowded Los Angeles freeway), La La Land branches off in two directions, introducing us to the pair of dreamers as its core. Emma Stone stars as Mia, a struggling actress/part-time barista whose string of tragic auditions threaten to batter her ambitions. As the disgruntled but idealistic jazz pianist Sebastian, Ryan Gosling gets a chance to tickle both the ivories and funny bones with his penchant for physical comedy (see also: The Nice Guys).
We know that these two impossibly good-looking characters are bound to end up with one another but Chazelle plays coy but having their first potential meet-cute end in a rude brush-off. Mia and Sebastian’s paths cross a number of other times as their mutual animosity settles into something more akin to affection. Sure, sure, it’s the plot of every other romantic comedy in existence but here it’s played for much laughs until the sincerity kicks in during – what else? – a repertory movie screening.
Chazelle’s choice to delay their embrace gives it more power, which is amplified during the dreamlike dance sequence set at iconic L.A. location Griffith Observatory (glimpsed in Rebel Without A Cause, among others). At their core Mia and Sebastian bond over their shared romanticism and ambition, with Mia looking to become a working actress and Sebastian hoping to make a living by playing jazz. They encourage one another to chase success even as it becomes apparent that finding it may tear them apart.
The plot is fairly straightforward but Chazelle employs a number of devices to breathe dramatic life into the proceedings. Shot on film and in a wide CinemaScope aspect ratio, La La Land certainly looks the part of a classic musical. Its use of bright colours enhances the throwback vibe, making the movie truly visually stunning. Look out for a magic hour sequence shot against the sun setting on L.A.’s skyline, numerous scenes in smoky jazz clubs, and the bold colours the characters sport (particularly Mia’s dresses). On style alone, La La Land glides by.
All that wouldn’t mean a thing if the songs weren’t good and thankfully they deliver (and I don’t even like musicals! Or jazz!). The opener “Another Day of Sun” is bombastic and full of verve and big drums while the second number “Someone In The Crowd” carries on the same absurdly upbeat vibe while refining it with some solid satire of Hollywood’s obsessive ambition. Composer Justin Hurwitz creates a number of memorable earworms and melodies throughout, with Gosling’s standout being the subtle “City of Stars” (showcasing a less professional but earnest signing voice) and the ultimate showstopper “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” performed by Emma Stone in the film’s climax.
Both Gosling and Stone go all in – singing, dancing and (in Gosling’s case) playing piano. Many of the scenes feature long, uninterrupted takes and that means that while the choreography may not be perfectly executed, it’s all the more real for those rough edges. It’s akin to action stars performing their own stunts – you notice the effort and reality, and it makes the movie that much more engrossing. Sure, they could’ve dubbed over Gosling’s singing voice with a Broadway pro but the movie would’ve been lesser for it. Even though they may not be as technically refined as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gosling and Stone exude the same level of charisma and derring-do, which keeps your attention glued on them at all times.
In love with cinema, the city of L.A., and the sheer high wire act of artistic creation, La La Land is a post-modern shot in the arm to movie musicals. With a sly wink it manages to avoid being overly precious or twee by virtue of its solid sense of humour and the two joyous lead performances. It’s above all fun, pure and simple, a burst of emotive song-and-dance borne out of a love for its predecessors. Sure to inspire many imitators, for now La La Land is the real deal.
La La Land (2016)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Runtime: 128 minutes