Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend
This review contains spoilers.
Going into this movie, in spite of the months of hype around it leading up to the classically tardy UK release date, I was apprehensive about quite how much I’d enjoy the experience. I’d adored the previous work of director Damien Chazelle, having been a heavyweight in the production of two of my favourite films of recent years. He wrote and directed Whiplash, 2014’s seminal love affair with jazz-cumtwo hour long panic attack, and co-wrote 10 Cloverfield Lane, which was one of the most affecting horror flicks of last year. But, lacking any particular passion for musicals, I was uncertain whether La La Land would be able to speak to me in the same way as it would somebody who listens to the Hamilton soundtrack on a regular basis. Yet, here I am, parroting everything you’ve already heard about this year’s awards season sweetheart – it’s absolutely spectacular.
Just like Whiplash, the film is a tribute to the genre of jazz, but whereas the sadomasochistic relationship between Miles Teller and J K Simmons makes for intense, grating viewing, La La Land feels careless and fancy-free, a whirlwind of eclectic showtunes and actors in swirling primary coloured garments. It’s old Hollywood reimagined in technicolour. The film chronicles the bittersweet love story of two down-on-their-luck wouldbe performers, Mia (Emma Stone), aspiring actress, full-time barista, and Seb (Ryan Gosling), a prospective jazz pianist stuck in a rut as a restaurant performer cranking out Christmas tunes for diners who barely notice his presence. After a couple of poorly handled initial encounters, their paths not so much crossing as crashing unpleasantly into one another, it’s third time lucky for the tumultuous twosome. They descend into a soon-tobe iconic tap dance number in Griffith Park, soundtracked by ‘A Lovely Night’, a still from which has become the defining image of the film. It goes without saying that Justin Hurwitz’ soundtrack is masterfully composed, but Stone and Gosling aren’t the best singers or dancers in the world, having not received the years of training of Broadway stars. But they’re passable, and that’s really what makes the film. Two more polished performers could leave the whole thing feeling too shiny, too perfect, almost alienating, and the slightly clumsy choreography and occasional missed note make the characters feel far more accessible. They may have big dreams, but they’re everymen rather than superhuman.
At points, it descends into feeling like a stage show, especially in the final scene, an epilogue of sorts, with a collective of backing dancers twirling set pieces around our now separated lovers. The ending is immensely bittersweet – Mia has finally made it as an actress, Seb has opened the immensely successful jazz bar he always dreamed of owning, but achieving their dreams has pulled the two of them apart. Mia is now settled down with another man and has a daughter of her own, so the film doesn’t even end with a Pretty Woman-esque implication of the pair getting back together after the credits roll – La La Land is a relatively wholesome affair, and to end things with the implication that she deserts her husband and daughter in favour of reigniting a fleeting whirlwind romance from days gone by would be decidedly out of tone with the rest of the film. Rather, they share a knowing glance, nostalgic smiles on their faces, aware they would have been perfectly happy if they remained together but are happier still apart.
And this is immensely refreshing. There’s a general perception within Hollywood, and indeed the world in general, that if a couple don’t stay together until the very end of their days then their relationship has been something of a waste of time. La La Land pushes against this – just because Mia and Seb’s love affair was not destined to be lifelong, doesn’t mean it wasn’t important.
Just one bone to pick – for a work focusing on jazz, an art form developed in the late 19th century by black Americans, it has a noticeable lack of melanin amongst the cast. Gosling’s character rants and raves about how he is going to “save” the dying art of jazz, while characters of colour flock around him looking like extras in their own history. The cameo from John Legend does something to remedy this. He plays a musician who wishes to update jazz into a format more palatable for the 21st century, and there’s something to be said for the presentation of a black man wishing to push the artform forward while a white man remains rooted in the past. Still, Seb seems to be presented at times as the only one who truly understands jazz, and it sometimes feels patronising to have a white character explain a culture which emerged directly from black American communities as though he’s the only one able to comprehend it. It doesn’t go so far as to ruin the film, but it’s definitely whitewashing, and something perhaps a little more thought should have gone into when casting the role.
Still, La La Land has been a critical favourite for good reason. Striking dramatic performances, toe-tapping musical numbers, and set design to die for, all culminate in the best musical movie in recent years, so theatrical you almost want to applaud as the credits roll. With last spring’s success of Sing Street it could well be that musical cinema is making something of a comeback. After recent releases such as Les Misérables and Sweeney Todd left fans of the stage shows wanting, it seems the best way to go with this genre is an original story rather than a screen adaptation of something written for the West End. Chazelle has proven himself as a director who can produce a feel-good film as well as a hard-hitting dramatic piece, and far from being overrated, La La Land has quite fairly earned all the praise which has been heaped upon it. Bravo.