Director Damien Chazelle is clearly an entertainer. This is obvious from his stupendous 2015-offering, Whiplash, a film which grabbed its viewer, span them around, whisked them along on an uber-tense, white knuckle ride, and spat them out again.
La La Land is Chazelle’s follow-up effort, and whilst it may not offer the edge-of-seat tension of its predecessor, it is nonetheless, pure and joyous entertainment.
A nostalgic throwback to the golden age of the Hollywood musical – I’m just trotting that line out, in fairness. You’ll do well to convince me that anything has ever been in any way golden when it comes to the ‘Musicals’ genre – it tells the story of an aspirational young guy and girl, who dream their starry-eyed dreams amidst the sparkling lights and inevitable crushing disappointment of that most cruel of honey traps that forever allures America’s creative wannabes… Los Angeles.
She – Mia, (Emma Stone) – is a struggling actress working in a coffee shop. She dreams of fame on the big screen. He, on the other hand – Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) – is a pianist. A jazz enthusiast, in its purest, most traditional form. He continues to wax lyrical about the virtues of Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk, whilst being told that the world of jazz has evolved and is rapidly passing him by. His dream is to open his own jazz club in which he will somehow keep the candle of traditional jazz burning. A place dedicated not only to the original essence of America’s one truly great original art form, but just as importantly, a place dedicated to his own dreams.
Frequent chance encounters throw this hapless pair together – not without some initial resistance – but little by little they succumb to the spark that is so clearly evident between them. They provide one another with the support and sense of belief that they really can fulfil all of their dreams, together.
But sometimes there’s an inevitability that our dreams will always come at considerable personal cost.
There’s nothing particularly new or innovative about La La Land. It’s a film that unashamedly wears its many influences upon its sleeve. We’ve seen it all before, but that is most certainly not to say that Chazelle’s big screen musical is in any way tired, lacking in inspiration or deserves to be denigrated in any way. Far from it. It may lack true originality, but it delivers, in no uncertain terms.
Musically, La La Land hits the spot.
An opening number that embraces both L.A’s considerable Latin influence, and the all-singing-all-dancing musicals of yesteryear, is, if anything, a little misleading. Such large-scale, finely choreographed mainstays of the Hollywood musical genre are, in the case of La La Land, in short supply. Once the director has got jazz hands, non-sensical dancing and sliding across car bonnets out of his system, the film settles down into a rather more intimate love story of sorts, chronicling the struggles of two like-minded artistes trying to make it in the big city – punctuated by a selection of more personal music and songs.
Justin Hurwitz’s score is deservedly picking up widespread recognition and acclaim. Although not necessarily overly-memorable initially, his songs and motif-laden incidental music will slowly find a way to lodge itself deep under your skin. It seems to share that same all-Californian sunny disposition that we readily associate with The Beach Boys, and Brian Wilson in particular. Indeed, elements of Wilson’s 2007 album Lucky old sun are in evidence here, and Hurwitz’s jazz-infused, feel-good, melody-rich score is all the better for it.
Vocally, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone impress with their raw but honest delivery, which is surprisingly decent, and used to good effect – Stone’s Oscar-nominated song performed at an acting audition being particularly effective.
Visually, La La Land merges reality with sort of theatrical sets, filtered through an explosion of vibrant technicolour, thus creating something of a dreamy haze. It’s a very beautiful union of styles. Coupled with Hurwitz’s soundtrack, whole-hearted personal performances, conservatively choreographed dance routines, a touching narrative and a generous helping of humour, it’s one hell of an irresistible blend.
It’s a story about staying true to one’s dreams in a cynical world, that’s both witty and nostalgic, unashamedly romantic, and with a closing musical montage which I will not describe for fear of spoiling one of the most lip-wobblingly poignant finales committed to film since the enduringly beautiful, Cinema Paradiso.