Damian Chazelle made a splash with 2014’s Whiplash, and now he takes a headlong dive into the deep end of the Hollywood pool with La La Land. This brilliantly conceived and handsomely executed paean to the Dream Factory is definite Oscar-bait and will also win a strong following from everyday moviegoers who should respond to its heady mix of nostalgia and dazzle.
Ostensibly, La La Land is the story of a romance between aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). It is that, but it’s also a Technicolor tour of everything people love about Hollywood. The old tagline “it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry” is apposite here. While it’s sometimes manipulative, and on one occasion, pure fantasy; the film no doubt has the power to sweep the audience into its thrall. You could frame it as a kind of melding of the nostalgic sheen of The Artist and the ode to the artistic process embodied in Birdman; both incidentally movies that won the Best Picture Oscar.
The film opens with a stunningly staged musical number (seemingly captured in one long tracking shot) set on a gridlocked Los Angeles freeway. Among the motorists are Mia and Sebastian; but their interaction is fleeting and hardly memorable. Mia works in a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot, slinging lattes to the famous. Sebastian meanwhile is an accomplished jazz pianist, frustrated at his inability to pursue his dream of opening his own club. Instead, he has to pander to the whims of restaurants wanting him to play background music. However, a chance encounter at a party sees these two kindred but rather lost souls connect. Their romance is a whirlwind one punctuated by classic movies and trips to jazz clubs, but soon enough real life intrudes on it. Sebastian has the opportunity to join the band of old acquaintance Keith (John Legend); but that will again involve compromising his artistic integrity. Mia meanwhile is scraping together enough money to stage a one-woman show; but is petrified it will never be good enough.
Unlike many on-screen romances of 2016, the one between Mia and Sebastian actually works, principally because both are fleshed out as flawed human beings. Sebastian is, putting it bluntly, a bit of a jerk. But he’s also charming in his own way, especially when he allows himself to open up to Mia. For her part, Mia is a ball of insecurities, cruelled by her own doubts. However, she can see something in Sebastian others have perhaps missed.
Despite the title, the film doesn’t really take place in Los Angeles. It takes place in “Hollywood”, that somewhat mythical land of dreams and glitter lying somewhere between imagination and reality. It’s very much a “showbiz” film, one that celebrates artistry while recognising that sometimes financial success isn’t always compatible with artistic integrity. At the beginning of the film, we see that Sebastian has a picture of Bill Evans in his apartment; but when he finally finds popularity, it’s as part of Keith’s pop-influenced band – and he’s acutely aware he’s selling out.
The film calls back, in both obvious and more subtle ways, to the great movies – particularly the great musicals – of days gone by. From the opening credits to the posters on Mia’s bedroom walls to a stunning sequence at the Griffith Observatory, this film is in love with old movies. It also happens to be the third film released commerically here in the past year to feature jazz as a critical story element (the others being Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead and Woody Allen’s Café Society).
Music is obviously a big part of this film and Justin Hurwitz (who collaborated on Whiplash) fills it with memorable tunes and hummable refrains. One song in particular (“The Fools Who Dream”), performed by Emma Stone, is destined to be a staple of auditions and talent nights for years to come. DOP Linus Sandgren (American Hustle) provides some stunning visuals of LA locations, while Tarantino collaborator David Wasco’s production design is impeccable (note his use of colour in particular).
The performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are close to perfect – and they need to be since one or both of them appear in just about every scene in the film. Stone in particular is excellent as the alternately determined and doubtful Mia. As mentioned, Sebastian can be a jerk, but Gosling manages to find the humanising side of the character as well. Given their heavy involvement in the film, there isn’t a lot of space for the (large) supporting cast to “breathe”; but J. K. Simmons as a restaurant manager, Rosemarie De Wit as Sebastian’s sister and Tom Everett Scott (who you might remember as a youngster in That Thing You Do) all make the most of limited opportunities. Real-life musician John Legend crosses neatly into the role of Keith, but his role is more heavily focussed on the musical rather than the dramatic.
Likely to be a strong contender at the Oscars, La La Land is another feather in Chazelle’s cap. This is a breezy, whimsical film; but one with heart and perspective. The film’s “big moment” at the end is sure to be one of the most talked-about of the year, and one of the most studied in years to come.
If you love movies, you’ll love La La Land. If you love movie musicals, you’ll adore La La Land.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
Release Date: 26 December 2016
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television