It’s garnering unbelievable acclaim and being nominated for every award out there, and now it has finally arrived on our screens. Damien Chazelle’s follow up to the phenomenal Whiplash really is as good as everyone says it is, bringing something we haven’t seen for a long time on the cinema screen and injecting it with its unique heart and rhythms.
The film charts the story of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), two dreamers trying to make it in L.A., and who fall in love along the way. Mia is an aspiring actress, who, after many auditions, needs Sebastian’s encouragement to keep going. Sebastian dreams of opening his own jazz club and, through Mia, perseveres in finding a way to build his dream. Many a song and dance follow.
Chazelle’s modern musical is, in one sense, an homage to the great musicals of yesteryear, however, it brings the musical into the modern world, and injects it with a shot of indie temperament. It certainly throws back to the golden age of musicals with small little details, and the opening proclamation of the film being shown in Cinemascope, certain transitions, and the old-Hollywood font of the title cards echoing the days of event cinema. However, the film isn’t set in the magical, slightly cheesy world of musicals that you might expect. Whilst the more fantastical musical numbers do venture a little into this territory, the film transitions between this and a more gritty and grounded sense of reality. All is not rosy on Mia and Sebastian’s paths to their goals, and neither is it in their relationship. The film grows to be much more intimate as it progresses, with less showy ensemble numbers, and more moments spent with just the two characters making for a much more personal affair. However big(ger) budget and Hollywood La La Land is, there is definitely indie blood coursing through its veins, ensuring it to be something new and different; a perfect blend of two worlds to create a more close and touching experience.
The film’s brilliance is really evident in how it pulls you in, immersing you in its world and the emotions that run along with it. It pulls at your heart; at moments it will take flight and an unstoppable smile will spread across your face, at others, it will sink and become sadly heavy. This love letter to L.A. portrays both the glories of the city and industry, but also the harsh realities of trying to break into the arts, ultimately humanising the idea of celebrity and showing everyone comes from somewhere. It will inspire you and make you want to follow your dreams.
Of course, one of the main elements of the film is its music, and the musical performances that go along with it. Justin Hurwitz has written some incredible songs and melodies here that fit so beautifully into the story and world (and, be warned, you will be humming and singing them for weeks). Some of the performances are of the ‘randomly burst into song’ variety, othertimes – especially in relation to Sebastian’s piano playing and the jazz performances in the film – the music is actually being played in the story. In both senses, the performances are extremely effective. After all of the hype, the opening number, whilst an incredible feat, may feel a little underwhelming, but what it really does is get you into the rhythm and mood of the musical, and the song, ‘Another Day of Sun’, sets up the themes to be played out. The following number is another showy ensemble piece, complete with extras and lots of dancing, yet balances itself with intimate emotional moments in the middle – the music is never really just for the sake of it (a hallmark of a great musical). The hauntingly beautiful ‘Mia and Sebastian’s theme’ takes on a life of its own where, by the finish of the film, the melody’s opening chords will bring you to the edge of tears. The duets between Stone and Gosling provide some of the films most gorgeously romantic moments, with one in particular evoking a certain Fred-and-Ginger ambiance. It is true that the actors are not the strongest singers or dancers (but they are still good!), but here it doesn’t really matter that much. It is only when looked at in comparison with the musicals of old that the fairly big difference is apparent. However, the lack of complete utter perfection (whilst robbing you a little of the super satisfying feeling of complete synchronization) serves to lend the film a further sense of authenticity by showing the characters as just normal people.
What may be lacking a little in the musical department is surely made up in the acting. The lead performances are one of the film’s strongest suits, both delivering, arguably, career-best work with phenomenally complex, deep, rounded and subtle performances. You never think of them as the actors, they completely melt into their roles, embodying what feel like real people. Their enchanting chemistry is palpable and truly makes the entire story so believable. Gosling’s piano-playing skills are unbelievable and he fully embodies the obsessed jazz-lover, without ever slipping into a cliché or one-note portrayal. Both leads are excellent, but Stone is a standout. Her solo, in particular, is (on the whole) soft in melody, yet so incredibly powerful as she projects all of her character’s hopes and fears out into the open with such a raw grace. This pairing will likely become iconic (as will that pose on the poster) in years to come. It is very much a two-hander, but the supporting cast is fantastic too, and Whiplash fans will get a kick out of seeing J.K. Simmons as a jazz-hating restaurant owner.
The visuals are stunning; this is not just a feast for the ears and heart, but the eyes too. The broad swirl of colours and gorgeous lighting create a fairytale-like feel to the whole thing and truly add to the atmosphere of each scene. The camera too adds a beautiful layer to the story. The quick-cuts of Whiplash are scarce here, with Chazelle choosing to use long takes, and single takes in the case of many of the musical moments. This is not only an homage to the ways of old Hollywood, but allows the camera into the smoothness of the music, gliding along with it and adding a feeling of real genuineness.
It is near impossible not to love La La Land. It has a timeless feel (only intruded upon by small details such as iPhones) that will only help it to reach the status of classic it seems to already be nearing. Its showering of awards, as well as seemingly wide appeal (the cinema was packed with everyone from grandparents to young kids) may even make this a game-changer, and movie musicals will return to our screens as a regular.
But, for now, we have La La Land. A gorgeously told story that has the power to move, inspire bring colour back into the world. You may find yourself wanting to dive back in as soon as you read ‘The End’, but, fear not, even one viewing will be enough to fill your heart up for quite a while.
Here’s to the fools who dream…