D: Damien Chazelle / 128m
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, Finn Wittrock, Josh Pence, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Tom Everett Scott, J.K. Simmons
A bona fide awards magnet, La La Land is the movie that’s grabbing accolade after accolade, award after award, and more recognition than you can shake a well-timed dance step at. It’s lively, it’s precocious, it’s endearing, it’s alluring, it’s beautiful to watch, it’s often breathtaking, and it’s absolutely deserving of all the praise that has been heaped on it since it was first screened at the Venice Film Festival back in August 2016. In short, it’s a triumph.
Movie makers – in recent years at least – have somehow managed to forget what makes a musical so enjoyable, what elevates them above all the comedies and the romantic dramas and the sincerity-driven historical biographies that we see year in and year out, never quite offering audiences anything new or different, or breaking free of their self-imposed comfort zones. Movies such as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) or Into the Woods (2014) – adaptations of successful stage incarnations – were too dark to warrant “enjoyment” as such, while the animated movie became the bolthole for musical numbers needed to pad out already short running times. Some musicals did try to be different – the “hip-hop” opera Confessions of a Thug (2005), splatterpunk/rock extravaganza Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008), biographical comedy-drama The Sapphires (2012) – but it was only fan favourites like Mamma Mia! (2008) and Les Misérables (2012) that made any impact at the box office or garnered any awards.
What modern movie makers failed to recognise when making these movies, was what made all those famous, much-loved musicals of the Forties and Fifties so beloved of contemporary audiences, and today’s aficionados. It wasn’t just the sight of Fred Astaire dancing effortlessly, and sublimely, with Cyd Charisse, or Gene Kelly pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved in a dance routine; it wasn’t even the sheer joy and enthusiasm of the singers and dancers, or the dizzying, dazzling cinematography that made each routine a small kinetic masterpiece all by themselves. What made those movies work was a shared love for the medium, a heartfelt commitment to making the best musicals they could, and by attempting to infuse these movies with a wonder and a magic you wouldn’t find anywhere else. If you need any further proof that the Forties and Fifties were a Golden Age for the movie musical, then take a look at any of the following: On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), or The King and I (1956). Now, those are musicals.
Which brings us to La La Land. A shot in the arm for the modern musical, La La Land succeeds because it combines the look and feel of those long-ago musicals with a more up-to-date sensibility, and in doing so, breathes new life into a largely moribund genre, and gives audiences the best of both worlds. By ensuring they honour the conventions of the musical, Chazelle and his talented cast and crew have created a movie that pays homage to those great movie musicals of the past, while also having one foot planted very firmly in modern musical aspirations. And there’s a trenchant, beautifully observed love story at its heart, a tale of two aspiring entertainers who come together by chance, and explore what it means to be in love through a series of primary colour-drenched sequences that provide audiences with an endorphin rush of happiness. You can’t help but tap your fingers, or your toes, as jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Stone) sing and dance and fall in love against a fantasy LA backdrop that is both dreamlike and alluring.
Chazelle has chosen his leads well, with Gosling and Stone displaying an easy chemistry together, a comfortable vibe that translates to the screen and makes their affair all the more believable. There are too many times when stars look at each other and the viewer can see there’s just no connection there whatsoever, but here that’s not the case (and this isn’t the first time that Gosling and Stone have been an on-screen item: check out Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011) for further evidence of how well they look together). With the central relationship served perfectly by its award-winning duo, La La Land is free to present the couple with the necessary obstacles that challenge their love, and their desire for each other. As they navigate the treacherous waters that Love and Life can put in people’s way, Sebastian and Mia transform from musical archetypes into fully-grown characters we can sympathise with, empathise with, and wish all the best for. We know them, and somewhat intimately, because we recognise ourselves – our better, more devotedly romantic selves – in them, and we want their relationship to succeed, and for their personal dreams to succeed as well.
But the course of true love never runs smooth, and La La Land‘s bittersweet ending may be upsetting for some, but it’s a perfect way to show just how passionate and all-consuming love can be, an experience akin to lightning in a bottle. Sebastian and Mia are lovers in the moment, bewitched by each other, and when the inevitable cracks begin to appear in their relationship, you’ve become so invested in their future together that you can’t believe there’s trouble ahead; in fact, you don’t want there to be any trouble. But this is a romantic musical drama, and there has to be sadness and tears amid the laughter and exultation. Chazelle, though, is confident enough to include melancholy in his tale of love, and love in his melancholy denouement.
He’s also made the music and dance elements work independently of the main story, but at the same time, ensured they’re intrinsically connected in such a way that they elevate Sebastian and Mia’s love affair. You can watch only the musical sequences and gain an understanding of the emotions and feelings the couple are experiencing, but as expressions of their love for each other, they take on an extra weight when interlaced with the main narrative, as each strives to be successful at what they love (or at the expense of each other). Desire and sacrifice are often two sides of the same coin when it comes to intense love affairs, and Chazelle shows how these two facets can co-exist for a time before they take on a disastrous over-importance in the couple’s lives.
La La Land is an amazing visual experience, a gorgeous, splendid ode to the Land of Dreams and an inspiring dreamland all by itself. It’s a bright, happy, sad, poignant, beautiful, wonderful confection that wraps up the viewer in its warm embrace and keeps you there as it makes you laugh and cry and feel a myriad of unexpected emotions. There’s not a wasted moment in La La Land, and Chazelle has created a world where each second is infused with meaning and significance, and the beauty of two people finding each other becomes paramount. For once, it’s an award winner that fully deserves all the acclaim that’s been afforded it, and is that rare thing: a modern classic musical.
Rating: 9/10 – ravishing, and astonishing for how delightfully beguiling it is, La La Land is a treat for the senses, a movie that keeps on giving and giving and giving; bold and exciting, there’s no room for churlish brickbats or grumbling sentiments, this is a lively, handsomely mounted movie that has, or will have, no comparable, contemporary equal, either now or in the future.