Since becoming obsessed with film as a kid, I’ve always been fascinated with “old Hollywood”. The old studios and their politics, the backlots and the movie stars. Damien Chezelle’s La La Land feels very much like a throwback to that time, an unashamedly proud musical, filled with lush, vivid colours, tap dancing, fantasy sequences and some incredible songs. Why La La Land works so well, is that it grounds itself with a modern flavour while still maintaining that classic movie aesthetic.
For some reason or another I missed La La Land at the cinema, but recently picked it up on Blu Ray. I knew very little about it going in, other than the actors and that it was a musical. I’d tried to avoid any trailers, as I feel with a musical, knowing the songs ahead of time is a bit of a spoiler.
Exploding with a huge, colourful song and dance number, atop a freeway overpass in the middle of a traffic jam, La La Land sends a message of intent right away. “Another Day of Sun” is an uptempo, piano driven number, reminiscent of something from West Side Story, causing all the car drivers to leap out and sing and dance. I was instantly in love, before we’d even met either of our main characters.
Emma Stone plays Mia, a coffee shop barista struggling to make it as an actress, being humiliated in auditions and overlooked by casting directors. Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian is a serious Jazz musician who wants success, but on his own terms. We’re introduced to them separately, both stories happening in parallel,until they eventually meet, when Seb is unceremoniously fired by a cameoing JK Simmons.
Telling a love story, for our time, in the style of a classic musical, yet making it work on both levels is a hell of an achievement. Whimsical, breezy and funny, it never gets cheesey, or silly which I think is down to the acting.
Sebastian is a snarky grump, but totally sincere and real, Mia exudes desperation and frustration at her career. When they meet, the chemistry is real and heartwarming. When they argue the pain feels true and cuts like a knife. Gosling and Stone have worked together twice before and they’re probably the closest we get to the classic Hollywood “couples” of yesterday.
The score and songs by Justin Hurwitz is note perfect. Every song works. The music cues are stunning, leaving the film feeling like a live action Disney movie or a modern Singing In The Rain. City of Stars, the opener I mentioned above Another Day of Sun and Someone In The Crowd stand out and will be in your head for weeks. Mia and Sebastian’s theme will SURELY go down in history as one of the great movie themes. Slow, mournful piano sweeping but with a classical touch and flowing into some quirky jazz, it’s breathtaking.
Told in seasons, Mia and Seb meet in winter and spend the next year growing together as people and as artists. A very real journey juxtaposed against some very nifty tap dancing and songs. When John Legend shows up as an old colleague of Seb, wanting him to join a band and go on tour you sense the tension between our couple. Mia’s envy of Seb’s success is obvious, which is never good in any relationship.
I’m going to refrain from ruining the last act , no matter how tempted I am to discuss it in depth! If you’ve not seen the film yet I would hate to spoil it for you. However I will say it floored me. A bold choice that paid off massively.
The city of Los Angeles is the third main character in the film and looks like the greatest place on earth, from its sunny skies, old theaters and the beautiful Griffith Observatory. An idea we always got from the old movies. Chezelle is clearly in love with this city, showing its beauty and it’s heart. Underneath the business side, is a very real group of people who want to be artists. We all start somewhere.
For me, La La Land is a masterpiece, full of primary colours, dancing and fantastic songs. Two stellar lead performances and some brilliant directing. Damien Chezelle is our Woody Allen, albeit with a more overtly musical sensibility.
The last time a film grabbed me like this, it was Mad Max Fury Road, equally bright, but with a little less singing.
For Fans Of:
Everyone Says I Love You
Midnight in Paris
Singing In The Rain
Beauty and the Beast (1991)