A little film. Not sure whether you might have heard of it yet? Damien Chazelle has followed up his astonishingly proficient “Whiplash” – my top film of 2015 – with a sure-fire theatre-filler in “La La Land”. The old-fashioned musical extravaganza is back, and back with style!
“La La Land” tells the bittersweet love story of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) who first meet in an LA traffic jam but then get thrown together by chance (LA is such a small place after all!). Over the course of the next four seasons romance blossoms. Mia is a struggling actress bouncing from audition to audition in a hopeless attempt to break through in LA’s tough movie business. She makes ends meet as a Barista on the Warner Brother’s lot. Meanwhile Sebastian is on a mission of his own: a talented musician, he is trying to restore jazz to the main stage (something the film’s soundtrack will undoubtedly help do!) by opening his own classic jazz bar. As both strive for success on their own terms can love survive to deliver us the classic ‘Hollywood ending’?
The film is technically astonishing, with clever continuous shots of the “Birdman” variety and masterly cinematography (by Linus Sandgren of “Joy” and “American Hustle”). The lighting team in particular is superb: a case in point is Mia’s ‘in-Seine’ (sic) song, with breathtaking fades of the background to darkness, a camera whizz-around the actress for effect and then a brilliant fade back to reality. Loved it. Overall, there are enough similar moments in the film to make cinema-lovers like me gasp with delight.
There’s a curious timelessness about the piece which is surely deliberate. While there are obvious and non-apologetic throwbacks to the classic musicals of the 50’s like “West Side Story” and “Singin’ in the Rain” and references to both “Casablanca” and “Rebel without a Cause”, there is also a 60’s vibe to the ‘girls getting ready’ sequence; an 80’s A-ha cover thrown in at a pool party; and a Californian Prius obsession that is surely more ‘noughties’ than current. Most curiously, while everyone has smartphones noone seems to text anyone to announce changes to plans: the film is almost distancing itself from much of modern life.
In the acting stakes Emma Stone again shines like a beacon. She is just magnetic on the screen: the biggest plot hole in the film (tiny spoiler) is why on earth she wasn’t given the part for her first audition! I was disappointed she didn’t win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Birdman” in the “87th Awards” (she lost out to Patricia Arquette for “Boyhood”): but she just keeps getting better and Better and BETTER.
Ryan Gosling’s confident and cocky turn also radiates charisma: in particular, it is astonishing that Gosling could play “only a few chords” on the piano before training for the film. A confidence boost for struggling piano learners everywhere.
It is actually difficult to imagine two better actors for the roles. (Emma Watson allegedly turned it down for “Beauty and the Beast”: something she might be kicking herself for!) Are they both the best singers and dancers when compared to Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Debbie Reynolds (R.I.P.) or Cyd Charisse? No, undoubtedly not, but they have an undeniable charm all of their own. (Perhaps we will see the ilk of the great hoofers and crooners rise again with a resurgence in the classic musical. Can Hollywood take a hint?)
The big question: now that both Stone and Gosling have won Golden Globes for acting in the “Comedy or Musical” category, can they convert that to Oscar glory where there is a single category in play? I’d like to think so.
It’s also great to see proper movie-making taking place in the Hollywood studios again: during my recent visits to LA there seemed to be little other than TV work going on in the main studio complexes there (although its worth pointing out that for this film not all of the filming was actually done on the Warner Brothers lot). (As an aside, the Warner Brothers tour – which you need to book well in advance – is a GREAT day out for movie lovers, with a Sunday visit giving you the best access to live sets. #insideknowledgetrivia: that small grassy triangle with the gravestones on it is where they filmed many of the “Friends” outdoor scenes such as the baseball match!).
Musicals are clearly measured by the quality of the music, and Justin Hurwitz (“Whiplash”) has produced a gem with – notwithstanding the jazz numbers and a catchy little pop number from John Legend – merely a handful of simple but unforgettable melodies that recur in different variations throughout the film. The soundtrack is already in my Amazon library and uplifting my mood on what is a damp and dreary Monday here in the UK.
Damien Chazelle has delivered a triumph in both direction and original script. There is really very little I can fault the film on. In what was the somewhat patchy Coen brothers offering from last year – “Hail Caesar” – there was a standout moment of a throwback song and dance number with Channing Tatum that I raved about (you can catch it here). If I was being picky, then this tantalising snippet would be a better representation of the style and vim of the original genre – – with the exception of the opening number, few of the song and dance numbers in “La La Land” quite get to that “Broadway Melody” level of scale and energy. This, together with a few concerns about the pacing in some places, led me to rate this as a 4.5 on first viewing.
However on now seeing it twice within 36 hours, it’s got me well and truly under its spell! I normally emotionally resist films that arrive with excessive hype… but, in this case… I give in.