Friday 22 September 2017

Film: A perfect antidote to unsettling times

After 'La La Land' made history at the Golden Globes, our film critic examines why this modern take on the classic musical is hitting the feel-good note with critics and film-goers

Dancing the night away: Stone and Gosling in La La Land
Dancing the night away: Stone and Gosling in La La Land
Golden Globe: Damien Chazelle with the award for Best Screenplay

Paul Whitington

That La La Land exists at all is something of a miracle. Musicals went out of style in the late 1960s, and sporadic attempts to revive the genre have failed and sometimes been embarrassing. But Damien Chazelle's film has received universally glowing reviews, enjoyed a triumphant night at the Golden Globes (see below), and is now most people's favourite to dominate next month's Academy Awards.

What's most surprising about La La Land, however, is that it's an original musical, not built around a core of well-known songs, or based on some hoary old Broadway show. It's a one-off, joyous and audacious, a knowing, modern take on the classic musicals of the 1940s and 50s, and it's a project Chazelle (who turns 32 next week) has dreamed of making for well over a decade.

It's set in modern Los Angeles - its opening song plays out during a freeway traffic jam - and is among other things an extended love letter to the endless stream of romantic dreamers who come to Hollywood nursing high hopes that are almost never realised. Emma Stone plays Mia, a struggling actress who's on her way to another doomed audition when she has an unpleasant encounter with a motorist, who honks his horn at her angrily, and is rudely rebuffed.

He is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a nightclub pianist who's on a one-man mission to save jazz from extinction. Emma thinks jazz is irrelevant, but she and Sebastian keep running into each other, and feel duty bound to fall in love. They hit it off, and move in together, but sudden success will pose all sorts of challenges.

Chazelle faced his own set of challenges when it came to getting La La Land made. He fell in love with the films of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in his late teens, and while studying at Harvard shared a dorm room with Justin Hurwitz, a fellow musical enthusiast and the composer of La La Land's score and songs.

"Me and Justin were just talking about wouldn't it be cool to do a musical like that," Chazelle recalled during the Venice Film Festival, "a big, old-fashioned song-and-dance original, but in a way that's realistic, that feels grounded, that feels like it's smashing a musical into real life."

Chazelle was drawn to the older musicals because of "the simplicity of their approach, and the purity of the idea that you break into song when you're too emotional to do anything else, and that when Gene Kelly starts to dance it's because he can't express an emotion any other way. If I had to explain to someone what a musical is, that's how I'd describe it - it's like walking down a rainy street, and you're so happy and you're so in love that you just have to start dancing. It's really simple, and it's timeless, and our idea was that it doesn't have to be old-fashioned".

The pair explored these ideas in their thesis year in Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), a low-budget street musical that made quite a name for itself on the festival circuit. But it was only after the success of Whiplash, his acclaimed 2014 film starring Miles Teller as an insanely driven jazz drummer, that Chazelle found backers for a chancy modern musical that would end up costing the bones of $90m.

Miles Teller and Emma Watson, who must both now be kicking themselves, were originally supposed to play Sebastian and Mia, but the slightly older and infinitely more charming Stone and Gosling ended up nabbing the roles.

Before shooting even began, Chazelle and his team faced two large problems. For a start, modern audiences just aren't used to the musical vernacular any more, and to most of us, someone breaking into song is evidence of mental illness. Secondly, the age of vaudeville is long gone, and with it the steady stream of actors and actresses to whom song and dance were second nature.

Golden Globe: Damien Chazelle with the award for Best Screenplay
Golden Globe: Damien Chazelle with the award for Best Screenplay

To be frank, Emma and Ryan are no Fred and Ginger, but instead of trying to hide their relative amateurism with cunning close-ups or even doubles, Chazelle has used their charmingly unpolished dancing and singing to make his film feel real, and contemporary.

"It was very much part of the approach," he said recently, "that we needed to do long takes and shoot head to toe and not hide the dancing and not hide the choreography, which obviously puts a lot of burden on the performers.

"But it also makes it feel like a live experience when you're shooting it. So we would do like 40 takes and it wouldn't work and then take 41 works and we would all cheer because we were like, 'we got it!' You actually did feel the exhilaration on set of shooting it, and the hope when you do that is that some part of that exhilaration will wind up on the screen."

Somehow, it does, and La La Land seems to have arrived in your local multiplex at precisely the right moment. Musicals first became popular with audiences desperate to escape the terrible privations of the Great Depression. The genre's classic era coincided with the Wall Street Crash, the World War II and the start of the Cold War.

Now, just as the world seems poised to return to an age of isolationism and sabre-rattling, Chazelle's film arrives to delight and distract us all with its riot of song and colour, joy and optimism. We should be thankful.

Is 'La La' Oscar a sure thing?

No film has even won seven Golden Globes before, and La La Land's resounding success last Sunday has led many to predict it will be the big winner at the Oscars, too. But that's by no means a given because the Globes and the Academy Awards are organised in very different ways, and at the Oscars, the Damien Chazelle film will have to compete for the Best Picture and Best Director awards with dramatic heavyweights like Jackie, Fences, Moonlight, Arrival and Manchester by the Sea. But if La La Land does sweep the board on  February 26, it will be well deserved.

There's an irresistible freshness and spontaneity to the film, which very deliberately flies in the face of modern Hollywood's franchise-obsessed cynicism. Everything about it feels newly minted, and though it refers constantly to the great MGM musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, it never stoops to mere pastiche.

Emma Stone has finally found a vehicle worthy of her talents in La La Land as the utterly charming, brave but brittle Mia. Her gift for light comedy is matched by Ryan Gosling's, and both must now be strong favourites for acting Oscars. But La La Land is pretty much guaranteed to succeed on the musical front, from Justin Hurwitz's enchanting score to such catchy, witty songs as 'City of Stars', which we'll all be shortly humming.

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