Film review: All-singing, all-dancing hymn to LA
Damien Chazelle's joyous musical is an utter delight from start to finish
It's hard to think of anything less romantic than a traffic jam, but in La La Land's remarkable opening sequence Damien Chazelle turns that notion on its head. Horns are honking and bumpers practically touching on a packed Los Angeles freeway when the drivers, most of whom appear to be actors on their way to auditions, leap from their cars and start dancing, while a passing woman breaks into song. Chazelle is setting out his stall early, testing his audience's willingness to suspend their disbelief, and preparing them for all that lies ahead.
For this is a musical, and not an ironic, postmodern, in-on-the-joke one either: La La Land wears its heart on its sleeves, deliberately evoking and inviting comparison with the great MGM musicals of the 1940s and 50s. Chazelle, who so impressed with his gripping and visceral 2014 breakthrough feature Whiplash, could hardly have taken on a greater challenge than single-handedly reviving a genre no one knows how to watch any more, never mind make. And La La Land is entirely original, not some stagey rehash of a tried-and-tested Broadway show.
It's a huge ask, but Chazelle pulls it off magnificently, helped by the fearless commitment of his two leads. Emma Stone is Mia, one of the hopeful young actors caught in that traffic jam, who's late for another cattle call audition when she has a contretemps with a passing driver. When she stalls in the traffic, a scowling young man in an open-top vintage belligerently overtakes her. She responds by giving him the finger. It must be love.
He is Seb (Ryan Gosling), a jazz purist and passionate nostalgist, who ekes a living playing cheesy background piano in a Los Angeles bar but infuriates the owner (JK Simmons) by embarking on noodly improvisations. He gets fired, and ends up in a silly jacket playing synth for an 80s cover band that does movie industry parties. At one of these, he runs into Mia again, and after trading insults for a bit, they begin to actually talk.
Mia's a barista on a studio lot, but dreams of becoming a major dramatic actress; Seb yearns to single-handedly save jazz from extinction by opening his own downtown club. "They say let it die," he mutters between clenched teeth - "not on my watch." Each finds the other's blind passion endearing, and after Seb invites Mia to a late screening of Rebel Without a Cause, they fall in love.
They do so against the backdrop of a surprisingly pristine and beautifully photographed Los Angeles, a much-maligned metropolis that is here subjected to the kind of fierce love Woody Allen bestowed on New York in Manhattan. Chazelle has the tougher job, because LA doesn't have much to match the Brooklyn Bridge or the Chrysler Building, but La La Land celebrates its natural advantages - its broad streets, Hispanic influences, high skies and that justly famous light.
If it's a kind of hymn to the city, La La Land also celebrates the tenaciousness of the young dreamers who flood west in their droves chasing dreams that will almost certainly elude them. Seb and Mia seem like two such doomed romantics, until success arrives unexpectedly, throwing a spanner in the works. As in Whiplash, the tension between artistic and romantic ambition is explored in a film that succeeds in being both joyous and melancholy, escaping into wild flights of musical fantasy while remaining stubbornly grounded, and real. Those musical numbers are delightful in the main, particularly the light and catchy 'City of Stars', and while Stone and Gosling might not be in same category as song and dance greats like Astaire, Rogers, Charisse and Kelly, their accessible dance routines and slightly shaky vocals make them seem all the more real. Damien Chazelle's direction and visual palette evoke everything from An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain to Jacques Demy's 1967 revisionist musical Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, but without ever stooping to impersonation, or pastiche. Because La La Land is a classic in its own right, a great film, and a musical for our time.
La La Land
Films coming soon...
Jackie (Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, Richard E Grant); Split (James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson); xXx: Return of Xander Cage (Vin Diesel, Samuel L Jackson, Tony Collette).