The magic, the romance, the city of angels: Hollywood is a dream and a creative ideal combined, and it’s a world captured picture-perfectly by Damien Chazelle’s first work since his 2014 Oscar-winning movie, Whiplash. La La Land tells the tale of aspiring starlet Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz’s self-proclaimed saviour, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), in an all singing, all dancing tribute to those cockle-warming classics of the mid-twentieth century.
The film pitches itself in the vein of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg nodding also to Singing in the Rain, Casablanca and Sunset Boulevard. The film spans the seasons of a year with a witty display of the consistency of LA’s sunny vistas (‘Another Day in the Sun’) which is at odds with Mia’s familiar montage of failed auditions and rejections. On casting Ms Stone and Mr Gosling, Mr Chazelle asked the pair to recall their worst auditions and many of these make the cut, offering a gentle reminder of the coldness and indifference that characterise show business. It is very telling that Mr Chazelle abandoned the film previously in light of numerous demands from doubting investors which he felt compromised his artistic vision. Sebastian’s a true-to-jazz man and wants to remain faithful to his art rather than bowing down to commercial gain – could the similarities be any clearer?
La La Land is an exploré of the realities of refusing to sacrifice your art. Yes, it’s glamorous and magical and bursts into song in the middle of a traffic jam, but it’s also brutal. As in Whiplash, La La Land explores the duality of dreams and reality, your art and your business, your career and your life. Mr Gosling’s character fights resignation, modernity and, in a cleverly ironic cameo, J K Simmons. With Mia he becomes part of a classic couple who must choose between love and success. Gosling and Stone have a fizzing chemistry in their third film together and give grace to a charming soundtrack by Justin Hurwitz. In a moment they become Fred and Ginger, Tracy and Hepburn, or Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert a la It Happened One Night. Stone injects more comedy into the film, although in doing so occasionally breaks character, becoming more recognizable as the talk show and red carpet personality we find so entertaining.
La La Land’s greatest weakness is that its dizzying heights are so tremendously high that quieter patches feel a touch plain, exposing a well-trodden plot and overly long sections of uninspired dialogue. Through these moments you find yourself waiting for the next musical number or romantic waltz among the stars, but you don’t have to wait long. A musician himself, Mr Chazelle becomes the conductor of La La Land, allowing swathes of film to be told purely through orchestra.
The marvellous cinematography is almost reminiscent of Disney’s Fantasia in its pairing of colour and music within fairytale vignettes. Toned in pinks and blues, the most prominent source of reference is again Cherbourg; the razzmatazz of Demy’s showcase overture sketches verve through many of La La Land’s orchestral motifs. Similarly, there is a studio-era feel to exterior scenes; one of these directly recalling Singing in the Rain’s “You Were Meant for Me” studio routine. The many debts that La La Land owes to its predecessors are justified only by Mr Chazelle being ever conscious of the film’s 21st Century setting. The old fashioned sentiments never feel dated, treading well the lines of the timeless and the modern. Fire alarms, text tones and Prius hybrids are very much here and now, and are frequent reminders that the old Hollywood world our protagonists occupy is not a reality.
La La Land is a wash of dreamy optimism and charm that never lets go of a sense of the real world. It is effortlessly uplifting, yet sadness dwells beneath the sheen of “the technicolour world made out of music and machine.” Mr Chazelle mourns but accepts the skeletons of time. He imagines what might have been for his parted lovers, but he does not give them the happy ending his audience might have preferred. You can’t have it all, he suggests. But that’s one lesson it doesn’t look like La La Land is going to have to learn in time for the upcoming award season.