Helen Tope has written a review of La La Land, which is showing in our cinema from 24 February – 7 March. Tickets available here.
La La Land is a film that announces itself with the fanfare we have come to expect from big-budget musicals. While the scale and ambition are textbook Hollywood, where La La Land diverges from the blueprint is in its execution.
The appetite for contemporary musicals has been transformed by the success of theatre productions such as Hamilton. Despite this, a musical about Hollywood, set in Hollywood, is a harder sell than you might think, and director / writer Damien Chazelle’s attempt to get La La Land onto the screen is a story in itself. But Chazelle’s perseverance paid off, and with Oscar-nominated success Whiplash to his name, Chazelle’s script got the green light.
The story begins in one of Los Angeles’ notorious traffic jams. Music from car radios begin to merge; classical, pop, jazz and funk. The travellers get out of their cars and dance. Chazelle, working with musician Justin Hurwitz, creates an exuberant dance number that leaves no corner of the screen unfilled. It is dazzling, epic and unforgettable. The music ends, and everyone gets back in their car.
In the queue of cars, we meet Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actress preparing for her latest audition. Behind her, is Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling) a jazz pianist. Once they reach their destinations, Mia fails her audition, returning to her job in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros lot, and Sebastian, a jazz purist, makes ends (barely) meet by playing Christmas tunes in a fancy restaurant. It is not what either of them dreams of.
La La Land is a film about dreams, but more pointedly, what it takes to realise them. Chazelle is a realist, and while La La Land may lead with its heart, as Mia and Sebastian meet, and fall in love, the dialogue remains sharp, cynical with plenty of bite. While the film is decked out in a gorgeous primary palette, the emotions are complex and deftly expressed. From a coffee-stained shirt to a glitzy Hollywood party that ends with Mia’s car being towed, Chazelle muddies the California waters with doses of reality.
The handling of the musical content is also approached from a fresh perspective. In his score, Hurwitz ditches violins for brass, and the staging from choreographer Mandy Moore is deliberately underplayed. The dance moves are performed with competence, but the styling is left casual. It’s a simple idea, but it succeeds in making La La Land look, sound and feel different. The film leaves behind the postmodern bravura of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, and enters an era of diffidence. La La Land is not designed to showcase a leading actor’s gorgeous voice, but instead the uncertainty of the characters’ lives is played out, note by precarious note.
Stone and Gosling are actors first, performers second, and it shows. But instead of being a disappointment, the rawness of the vocals, the practised but not perfect moves, are what gives the musical its spontaneity. Rather than feeling unpolished, the big production numbers swing through the frame with a feverish energy that recalls the early MGM musicals. Cynicism and doubt may be the pace-setters of this drama, but when the music begins to play, caution is cast aside and optimism is written across the screen, bright and bold.
This is not to say that the film lacks nuance – the emotional heft is provided by the performances of Gosling and Stone. Gosling, a star raised through the ranks of independent cinema, skilfully creates a tension between ambition and achievement: success eventually comes to Sebastian, but at a price. Gosling, whose previous films include Lars and the Real Girl, has a stillness which does not make him an immediately obvious choice for a musical, but Gosling’s ability to convey inner turmoil is his bread and butter – and here, that’s what counts. Chazelle wisely deploys Gosling just as he is – and it makes for an unusual, but deeply compelling, leading man.
Emma Stone, with a background of quirky comedic roles, is the real surprise of La La Land. Going against the grain, Stone’s performance is anxious and nervy; her audition pieces dotted throughout the film are acted on pinpoint. As failing actress Mia, life in Hollywood is a daily exercise in humiliation. Turned down for a television role, the casting directors begin scanning the CV of another actress before Mia has even left the room. Stone gives a career-best performance; battle-scarred but not yet beaten. La La Land doesn’t sugar-coat the pain: the characters are only able to articulate joy because they have so keenly felt what lies beneath. The film remains hard-headed even to the very end – we are given our happy ending, but there’s a trade-off.
La La Land embeds itself into the history of Hollywood, and the references come thick and fast. From fleeting glimpses of movie posters and glamour shots, La La Land plays to another level when it incorporates an iconic movie location into the body of the film. Having watched Rebel without a Cause, Mia and Sebastian visit the Griffith Observatory. The location again used for a climactic turn of the narrative, La La Land is superimposed onto cinema history. It’s clear that Chazelle sees his film as both part of film history, and by definition, an extension into what comes next. It’s a musical whose elements refuse to conform to the rules. The plot-jumps, a style where tradition meets innovation; they elevate La La Land beyond passion project to a film that has something to say about success, failure and everything in-between. Rejection isn’t just a subplot here; it’s practically the third lead.
The refusal to look away from the truth is what makes La La Land so successful. It will continue to sweep up during Awards Season (with the BAFTAs and Academy Awards still to come), not because – as some critics have divined – it looks inwards. As an audience we may wish to be transported, but La La Land works because it doesn’t escape; it explores. Frailty and uncertainty are more usually fodder for Oscar-winning drama. La La Land does this with a smile and a song, and it’s tempting to think of this film as the lesser achievement, when compared to other Oscar favourites such as Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea. But what Chazelle and Hurwitz have created is a series of moments that stray from the perfection of the musical, into a custom-built genre that’s far better equipped to articulate the anxieties of a modern audience.
La La Land may seem on the surface to be a crowd-pleaser: that rarest of films that wins over the critics and does great box office. But at its heart, La La Land celebrates our ability to remain optimistic, even when facing a future that’s anything but technicolour. It’s this struggle that La La Land so neatly defines, with a bittersweet conclusion that’s brave, sophisticated and unique. It may have taken its time in reaching the silver screen, but La La Land is worth the wait.
Helen Tope is a freelance blogger working and living in Plymouth.