La La Land is both a soaring technicolour homage to vintage Hollywood musicals and a down-to-earth 21st Century romance in which dreams of stardom in the City of Angels are undercut by reality and compromise. Writer-director Damian Chazelle’s award-laden follow-up to Whiplash is a tonic for the January blues.
Leading couple Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have a lovely onscreen chemistry and they make their song-and-dance numbers look effortless. Their singing, while not technically perfect, humanises their characters and makes us warm to them more. Gosling’s piano-playing, apparently learned over three months, is jaw-droppingly good.
Will they make it? Will they stay together? Whatever happens in La La Land we should not expect standard Hollywood schmaltz from Chazelle, a jazz lover, who believes that his music mirrors life, full of ‘conflict and compromise’. The ending he has crafted here is a mini-symphony of mood and style: clever, poignant and fresh, with a sweet ‘n’ sad refrain.
It is not exactly love at first sight. Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling) first set eyes on each other in a sprawling LA traffic jam after the film’s bravura opening sequence, ‘Another Day of Sun’, a sparkling Fame-type dance breakout on freeway and car bonnets. He honks and frowns at her. She gives him the finger. In time-honoured rom-com fashion they keep bumping into each other until the spark begins to sizzle during a glorious sunset dance sequence, in which they pretend otherwise: ‘What a waste of a lovely night’. The romantic spell is broken by the sound of a mobile phone ringing, one of several humdrum modern intrusions engineered by Chazelle to yank us back from ‘La La Land’ to LA.
As an aspiring actress who has been auditioning for film roles for six years, Mia is getting tired of rejection. She works in a coffee shop and dreams of writing and starring in her own one-woman show. Sebastian encourages her to make this a reality. She, in turn, supports his dream of opening his own jazz club, rather than playing Jingle Bells to diners in restaurants.
Emma Stone is up on screen more than Gosling and she shows both a light touch and gravitas in a role that requires ‘acting an actor auditioning for an acting role’, as well as belting out a heartfelt solo, while having a crisis of confidence. Stone is sassy, funny and vulnerable and she is the perfect foil for Gosling’s dapper coolness. Together, they switch effortlessly from comedy to romance to serious. For 80s pop music fans, one of the film’s highlights will surely be Gosling, resplendent in red PVC jacket, playing a keytar (keyboard/guitar) in a covers band to Aha’s Take On Me. Stone requests I Ran (Flock of Seagulls) and does a memorable smouldering dance to it.
La La Land namedrops Casablanca, perhaps the greatest film romance of all, and it also has a wistful melody running through it like gold thread. Justin Hurwitz’s theme may not quite be up there with ‘As Time Goes by’, but tugs at the heartstrings nonetheless, and the rest of the film’s music fizzes with pizzazz and playfulness.
It is a measure of how much Stone and Gosling dominate La La Land that we develop a blind-spot for the supporting cast, who almost vanish into the wings. Only J.K. Simmons’ cameo stays in the memory, a flashback to his Oscar-winning bully from Whiplash (‘I don’t want to hear the free jazz’).