Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
How can one review a film like La La Land without falling into the two camps that have emerged around the film? It seems to be a bit of a marmite film, some people loved it, others really took against. I find myself positioned somewhere in between. I could see its many merits and honestly think that Damien Chazelle has made a very solid musical, however I wasn’t blown away it. And I certainly wouldn’t call it, as many critics have done, “The most romantic movie of the year.” I actually found the film as a whole to have quite a bleak outlook on love and romance, yet I’m not saying that’s a weak point.
La La Land follows the story of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an out of luck jazz pianist, and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, both living Los Angeles, the place where dreams are made of. However, they’re finding that their dreams are quickly slipping away, that is until they, after a few rather unfortunate encounters, finally get to know one another properly and end up falling in love. But then life gets in the way, and they both find themselves struggling between realising their dreams and keeping their love for one another alive.
People love what other people are passionate about.
Musicals are pretty hard to find on the big screen nowadays. They seem to be reserved especially for Broadway and the West End. There was a time when musicals were all over Hollywood, much like superhero movies are today, however they are much more niche nowadays. That said, we have seen films like Les Misérables and Frozen make a big splash on the big screen in recent years, so claiming that La La Land is the return of the Hollywood musical isn’t quite true. Animation has certainly been keeping things alive, and there’s still the odd musical being released here and there. What is true however, is that no musical in recent memory has celebrated the Golden Age of the genre quite like La La Land does.
The whole film is a love letter to the musicals of the early 1950s and 60s. There are countless callbacks to Singin’ in the Rain and West Side Story, yet there are also references to classic movies like Rebel Without A Cause and Casablanca. In my honest opinion, some of these references were a bit too on the nose for me, especially the moment where Mia points out the window from Casablanca. That said, Damien Chazelle’s love for this particular era of Hollywood cinema is infectious and I can understand why so many people found it to be enchanting.
I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I’ll hit back. It’s a classic rope-a-dope.
One of the film’s strongest points is the chemistry between the two leads. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are the perfect on-screen couple, but we already knew this thanks to Crazy Stupid Love. They work so well together, and it’s a pure joy to watch them sing and dance together. They reminded me of Tony and Maria from West Side Story, or Sandy and Danny from Grease. They just click. Some people have criticised their singing and dancing abilities, but personally, I found their few missteps and tuning issues to be somewhat charming.
Speaking of the music (you kind of have to since it is a musical…), La La Land’s score is wonderful. There’s no other way to describe it. I had chills from the moment I heard ‘Another Day of Sun’, which is part of an incredible opening sequence and edited together so meticulously that it looks like it was all done in one take. However, the real standout tunes for me where Sebastian and Mia’s duet of ‘City of Stars’ and Emma Stone’s audition piece near the end of the film. Yet, I also have a soft spot for John Legend’s ‘Star A Fire’, even though it was meant to represent the ‘death of real jazz’. I’ve been listening to the film’s soundtrack ever since I came out of the screening. It’s that infectious.
I guess I’ll see you in the movies.
However, I wasn’t as moved by La La Land as I was by Damien Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash. I know it’s a bit unfair to compare the two since they’re very different films, and if anything Chazelle has proved what a talent he really is by following up Whiplash with La La Land, which is a far removed from his previous film as you could possibly be, apart from the reappearance of J. K. Simmons and the references to jazz. However, I felt that Whiplash offered something I hadn’t really seen before. It felt like I was watching a boxing movie, but instead of seeing two guys pummel one another physically, I was watching two men beat one another up mentally through music. La La Land left me feeling a bit cold and I felt like I had seen this done before.
I think that people tend to mistake nostalgia for innovation. It’s perfectly fine looking back at things with fondness, however you have to be able to introduce your own ideas and create something genuinely new. La La Land doesn’t do this, which is why I enjoyed the movie, but wasn’t bowled over by it. I certainly didn’t think it was an Oscar winning movie. I felt that 2016 saw much better performances than Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s, specifically Amy Adams in both Arrival and Nocturnal Animals (I still can’t believe she wasn’t nominated for either performance), and Casey Affleck’s turn in Manchester By the Sea, which is nothing short of extraordinary. I also think that all those films are far superior to La La Land.
This often happens with Hollywood. They latch onto a film and get carried away by it, forgetting to look closely at the truly remarkable films of the year. The Academy does like to award movies which gives Hollywood a good pat on the back, and in La La Land’s case the pat is being delivered by a whole dance troop armed with a musical number or two… or three. However, maybe this year’s Oscars proved that things might be starting to change, although they still had to give La La Land the award for Best Picture, before realising their mistake and handing it to the actual best film of the year, Moonlight.