ON IN CINEMAS
La La Land
In this L.A. based musical directed by Damien Chazelle, Emma Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actress who never seems to get any luck with casting calls and thus spends her days making ends meet via a waitress gig in a coffee shop. One hot California winter night she heads out to a swanky pool party with her three housemates - all of whom are also aspiring actresses looking for their big break, either through casting sessions or meeting a well-connected guy - and ends up leaving in a huff for some undocumented reason (though perhaps understandably considering the glaringly vacuous scene we witness). She heads for a local piano bar run by Bill (J.K. Simmons).
The guy tinkling the ivories is Sebastian, a musician reduced to playing whatever Bill dictates - in this case a string of cheesy Christmas numbers. When he gets fed up and decides to play a bit of his own thing Bill has a word with him: he’s history. Mia, clearly in awe, walks up to him to complement his playing. However Sebastian, in a huff, just shoves past her on the way to the door.
The two bump into each other again at another swanky Hollywood pool party where Sebastian is playing a Keytar for an 80s tribute band. They strike up a conversation that continues during a walk home through the Hollywood Hills, ending up in a spontaneous dance in front of the L.A. nighttime skyline. After more meetings he introduces her to his love of jazz and old movies, along with his ambition to keep his beloved music alive by opening a club. She, on the other hand, fed up with being snubbed at one casting call after another, decides to try her hand at writing and starring in a one-woman play. The film chronicles the ups and downs of their romance and their quest to realise their respective dreams.
La La Land received its full American release in December of 2016, winning widespread acclaim and decent box office figures. It received a record seven wins at the 2017 Golden Globe Awards - a fact that seems to have prompted a bit of a backlash from some quarters. It was released in the UK on the 12th January, 4 days after the award ceremony. Having seen it, I have to say the backlash feels rather petty and spiteful. While perhaps a little longer than it needs to be (a trend that seems to be affecting a lot of films of late) La La Land is a piece of cinematic magic.
While it’s a lot more than just a series of great musical numbers, there is a plenty of delight contained within these moments. The opening sequence - a vast dance number on a gridlocked L.A. freeway that has seemingly been captured in one take by an endlessly swooping camera - is spectacular. Did this film really cost just $30 million (a rather small figure when you consider that many of the largest Hollywood productions nowadays cost $200 million or more)? While it’s pretty much superfluous to the rest of the story it sets the tone (i.e. a joyously nostalgic nod towards classic musicals) really well and does provide introductions to our two main characters as they sit at the wheels of their respective cars honking away, unaware of the life they will soon be sharing.
The other musical numbers are smaller and more intimate to the two main players, but no less beautiful. The visual emphasis on primary-coloured garments against deep blue backdrops and art deco settings makes for a very appealing visual palette, and the dancing (particularly by our two leads) is both energetic and tightly-choreographed. Much of the music is based around a charming old-style number called “Someone in the Crowd”, but there’s a lot of variation here ranging from a couple of 80s numbers, through quite a bit of jazz to a cheesily overdone soul-pop number in the blatantly commercial band that Sebastian ends up in.
Outside of these numbers we get a pair of superb performances. Emma Stone has a wonderfully expressive face that seems to light up the camera every time she looks towards it. Her seemingly effortless ability to make the viewer read her mind just by looking at her expressions is a rare one and shows how she stands head and shoulders above most performers today. Gosling on the other hand swings between Harrison Ford-style deadpan charm and a certain sore loser-style frustration. It’s a variant on his work in The Nice Guys but hey, that’s no bad thing since he was enjoyable there and he’s just as enjoyable here. More importantly, the pair really click and bounce off each other, creating genuine chemistry and making us root for a happy ending between them.
There’s also a surprising amount of humour and, crucially, humour that actually works. A lot of it is around the comically cheesy musical odd jobs that Sebastian ends up with, or his witty chancing-his-arm interactions with boss Bill. However, Mia’s abruptly abortive auditions also get a few subtle sniggers as she reads for parts where she is quite glaringly unmatched. The humour is related to a general underlying message about pursuing your own passions and niche over everything else - a message that feels sincere and inspiring here.
Overall it’s a really enjoyable couple of hours at the cinema, stuffed full of invention and charm. Even if it gets a bit corny at times, it’s in a way that’s affectionate and knowing rather than lazy. It’s a must see, if only because there has been nothing out there in recent years quite like it.
Runtime: 128 mins
Dir: Damien Chazelle
Script: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons