Musicals are kind of like marmite: you either love them or hate them. Director Damien Chazelle most definitely belongs in the former category. Now, with the release of La La Land, he has managed to channel that infatuation into a truly unique film.
Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actress among countless others in modern day Los Angeles, works in a café on the Warner Bros. lot, waiting for one of her many auditions to transform into her big break. Simultaneously, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), the very epitome of “misunderstood musician”, has taken it upon himself to resurrect jazz through his piano playing. For better or worse, they embark upon a (most-probably doomed) romance while battling the unlikelihood of achieving their unrealistic dreams. A feel-good film, you might say.
When people describe this film as an homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood, that’s no exaggeration. Even before the first scene, the archaic opening logos are enough to send the audience back to the days of RKO Pictures and MGM. But perhaps the driving force behind the nostalgic tone is – rather aptly for a musical – the score. Justin Hurwitz (the composer, and Chazelle’s partner in crime on this six-year-long passion project) writes one that harks back to those beautiful features from times gone by. In fact, although the film has a few too many montages, it’s almost forgivable as the emotional depth of the music helps to carry the story from one point to the next.
However, despite the heavy influence of the films La La Land pays respect to, Chazelle does well in keeping the movie’s fantastical elements in check. He dances the line between overwhelming hyperbole and sobering truth to great effect – and this is best seen at the end. Through a whole dream sequence reminiscent of 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, Chazelle ostensibly rejects the notion that one can enjoy the present by trying to recreate what might have been, in an ending that many might find unsatisfactory, but which I rather liked.
“Chazelle and his team thoroughly deserve the acclaim they have been receiving”
Having said that, I couldn’t help but feel mildly disappointed by the film. For a movie marketed as a musical, I was somewhat frustrated by the vocals. An example of this was the opening number. While the sheer production value and work that must have gone into it were both inspiring and thrilling, there was just something lacking in the singing – it didn’t feel as grand as the dancing and the picturesque background that surrounded it. Similarly, Gosling and Stone’s voices were quite weak – whether that was a deliberate choice (to allow the audience to relate to the ‘realness’ of their singing), I’m not sure, but their acting more than made up for it.
Gosling’s thoughtful, impassioned portrayal of Sebastian worked very well opposite Stone’s vulnerable, yet powerful performance as Mia. Maybe it’s the fact that this is their third outing as a couple on film, or maybe it’s a testament to their acting, but you genuinely get the feeling that these characters just understand each other on a profound level. Their chemistry is best highlighted in their dancing, which far outdoes their singing. Gosling and Stone are like a pseudo-Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, not so much in skill as in attitude, and the nonchalance with which they dance is delightful.
One of my favourite things about the film, though, is the look of it. Admittedly, I felt a sense of incredulousness at its 14 Oscar nominations – a record matched only by 1997’s Titanic and 1950’s All About Eve. But every aspect of the design – the costumes, the sets, the editing – was saturated with a love for both this film and films in general.
“This story […] isn’t original, but it is told in an innovative way, combining the old and the new in an exhilarating and downright joyful manner”
Even though so much hype surrounding a movie can be detrimental to the experience of watching it (and I do believe that, much like its predecessor, Whiplash, you should definitely try to go in with a blind eye turned towards the superlatives attached to La La Land), Chazelle and his team thoroughly deserve the acclaim they have been receiving.
But particular credit must go to Linus Sandgren’s cinematography. The colour palette is stunning, filled with block yellows, blues and reds, and the camera work is electrifying. Although the scene in the Griffith Observatory, where Mia and Sebastian dance in their city of stars, is an obviously breath-taking moment, one particular shot that stayed with me is towards the beginning, when the camera pans round a swimming pool before plunging into it. It whirls round and round, faster and faster, with the same hedonistic excitement that fuels much of the film’s introduction – and helps propel the audience into the middle of the story, which unfortunately seemed to sag under the weight of the film’s stellar start and finish. Then again, it would have been difficult to maintain such a forceful pace throughout and so the second act could be seen as a much-needed breather.
Nevertheless, this is a truly impressive spectacle that will be enjoyed by film lovers and the general public alike. This story – a guy and a girl fall in love despite the obstacles they know will appear – isn’t original, but it is told in an innovative way, combining the old and the new in an exhilarating and downright joyful manner.
Chazelle’s ode to a beloved art form is, in itself, a masterful work of art.
Media Courtesy of Black Label Media and Gilbert Films
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