La La Land comes advertised as a joyous throwback to romantic musicals of olden days but while looking to the past for inspiration it should be more fairly recognised for being a much more ambitious modern taken on those old films. Critically acclaimed and award winning you can already sense the backlash mounting from cynical minds ready to pick at its flaws. In hindsight it may be obvious to note that a steadicam take in a musical would be neat or that CGI could open up the possibilities of old musical numbers. Just because the ingredients were there all along doesn’t change the fact that it took a smart chef to make a tasty new dish. A classic that may not endure in the years to come it will remain for fans of a certain age a heartbreaking ode to romance when ironically it’s real theme is about ambition.
The film opens up on the disused freeway ramp where parts of Speed were shot with an impromptu dance number by many stuck in LA traffic with a one take tracking shot over several vehicles and choreographed dancers. It’s kinda awesome but has little to do with what the rest of the film will be about. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are both stuck in the traffic and have an altercation signposting immediately for us that they will fall in love. He is a down on his luck bar musician with a deep abiding love for jazz. She’s a beautiful young woman auditioning for roles in Hollywood, so you know a barista on a film lot. Both have respect for art forms of the past and dreams to bring something forth of their own artistic merit into the present. Slowly they keep running into each other and romance blossoms but dreams are hard to pursue in Hollywood where many dreams have come to die. Will their love give each other resilience and support or will it too be broken by the disappointment that can come from not realising your dreams?
This is the third onscreen pairing of Gosling and Stone who have an easy chemistry and benefit from the film history they’ve already established for themselves. It’s interesting to note neither were originally intended for their parts and yet are kind of perfect. Gosling gets a bad rap for being too handsome and too cool but I feel he invests most of his characters with deep passion always subverting the coolness his characters want to exude. Think the visible shaking of the Driver holding the hammer over his assailant or financial trader Jared Vennett exclaiming I’m jacked to the tits down the phone line.
Stone who is beautiful in that cute girl next door way always belies some smarts in her characters. Think of the love interests she played in Amazing Spider-Man or Superbad who always seemed to know more than what the lead male characters did. With little subtle choices here she shows her character knows how impossible her dreams are and what costs choices have in our lives. There are a lot of scenes here where Stone says a lot with her eyes more than her words and it can be devastating. In a year of so many wonderful female performances that were broad, strong and nuanced, it is these subtleties that will mean there is no injustice if she takes home Oscar at the end of the month.
The style of the film changes tonally throughout, the meet cutes at the beginning amuse, as the romance blossoms we’re treated to exciting musical numbers where our leads literally float through the air and then as the relationship develops and is called on to face challenges the numbers disappear and a regular Ryan Gosling indie hit appears. It says something about all involved that the transition to a late dinner argument feels authentic and seamless. These later scenes and outcomes may feel out of place with how the film was sold but sadness does give stories depth when done honestly.
The production of this film is perfect, LA is rendered with love in all its beauty, the flat vista spreads out before us, our characters attend parties at houses on hills with swimming pools no regular schmo could afford, the sun brightens every day and every night is moonlit. This is a beautifully, lit and shot film by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, quite possibly the best of the year. The choreography of the dances are beautiful but also human and heartfelt without the polished sharpness of professionals. Barring the finale which hits you with a flurry of emotion, the stand out sequence may be Stone and Gosling dancing around each other on a hill at sunset looking for their cars but really dancing around each other metaphorically and literally. Whether the sunset was CGI enhanced I don’t know, it has the controlled look of a studio set with the natural power of outdoor shooting. For a musical there is the one stand out song of City of Stars with only a couple more, don’t look for several new tracks to fall in love with but the music in it by Justin Hurwitz is enjoyable. Damien Chazelle’s direction is confident on his second feature film giving equal care to capturing the way our bodies slowly reach out during a first kiss right through to the big production numbers. Dreaming lovers walk the streets of 2016 Los Angeles thanks to his vision.
For those that have gone to Hollywood to be an actress or open up a jazz bar I salute you. Especially if you have failed. Taking your shot should matter, so few of us do and you did it. La La Land is a movie for you and for the million like you because even though you failed where the hell would we be if there weren’t dreamers like you. La La Land understands those dreams and those dreamers but it also understands the cost of it. A cliché in a Hollywood film is a darkly lit corner at the back of jazz bar where a washed up saloon singer sings about lost love in such a way that you feel he’s lived the story of that song. We look at his strained face; we hear his rising voice, feel the pounding of those piano keys. We don’t feel it, we know he’s lived that song’s story and La La Land the movie knows it too and sings it like never before.