La La Land follows the story of two hopefuls drifting through Los Angeles on the flight of their dreams alone: Mia is an aspiring actress desperate to be given the chance to prove her talent rather than vicariously connect through that world in her role as the barista of the studio lot’s coffee shop; Sebastian is a musician almost obsessively besotted with Jazz as an art form, and hopes to one day own his own Jazz club where he can let the improvisational joy of Jazz flourish. The two are seemingly drawn by the hands of fate to one another, romance blooms … but the paths of love and creative fulfilment prove to be a twisted road, and the journey they take will test the beliefs they hold dearest within their hearts.
At its very best, La La Land is a tour de force of creative energy and craft, jumping between subtle and sheer candy floss in its tones, references and spectacle. However, it’s a delicate balance that doesn’t always hit that perfect beat, as can be seen in the film’s lovingly retro numbers. Clearly inspired by the dynamism and scope of the classic musicals of the past, particularly the MGM musicals of Vincent Minelli and Stanley Donen, La La Land boasts a laudable attitude to emulating the same abundant spectacle in its display of technical command, from sweeping camera dollies to exquisitely matched colour palettes that turn LA into a playground for the film’s dreamers. Unfortunately though, the first two numbers, “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd” that open the film are perhaps too excessive in their attempts to pay homage to the classics, and come across as clichéd in their display. This is reinforced by the effectiveness of the “Lovely Night” number, where the excess and kinetic frenzy is cast aside in favour of an elegantly tracking camera and the talents of Gosling and Stone with which to entrance the audience. The result is a moment of magic in its simplicity, filled with wit of lyricism, joy of motion, chemistry of performance and the spirit of the classic Hollywood musical in its real-meet-cute feeling.
Yet Chazelle makes sure the whimsy that overloads the film’s opening, almost pandering, onslaught of choreographed sound and vision, finds a weighted balance perfectly as it moves into the heart of blossoming romance and relationship between Sebastian and Mia. The worryingly saccharine is leavened with the aching of reality, both cleansing and cruel, into a bittersweet ode to love and melancholy. In this sense, Chazelle channels the work of oft underappreciated French New Wave director Jacques Demy, in particular his masterpiece Umbrellas of Cherbourg, whose combination of classical musical tropes and style with a tenderly pained edge of irony and reality is a clear touchstone for the human story Chazelle unfurls. The culmination of this vision comes in a sequence at the film’s climax, as the change of one moment in the past leads to an abstract, almost balletic sequence that channels the vivid expressionism of The Red Shoes, creatively bold and visually stunning in its elegant and fantastical mise-en-scene: the emotional crescendo of the film that thrills and breaks your heart in equal measure.
Personally, the idea of La La Land as somehow reinventing the musical for a modern audience is a tad too bold a statement; but it most certainly reinvigorates audiences who have been shorn of this particular spectacle for far too long, and a crucial element in bringing this spirit so vivaciously back to the fore is the central pairing of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Gosling illustrates once again that he is as close to the stars of golden age Hollywood as any performer working in modern cinema; witty, adroit and effortlessly charismatic, he charges through the film and yet always holds a fragility that makes the character of Sebastian emotionally available to an audience rather than simply a two dimensional flight of fantasy. While Gosling’s charming leading man sparkles brightest, it’s Emma Stone in the role of Mia who delivers arguably an even more striking performance. From the very start of the film, Mia is both passionate and vulnerable, the perfect conduit for the audience to channel their own wants and frustrations. However, Stone intensifies both aspects of the character as events develop and her passion bursts into different emotional ranges, using her physicality and personality to present both natural humour and aching sadness in both small exchanges and musical performances, typified by her rendition of “Audition (The Fools who Dream)” where Chazelle tones out the rest of the world around Stone and leaves her alone in the spotlight, where you can feel the culminating experiences of the film coalescing into one moment where her dreams and reality teeter on the edge. Like Ginger Rodgers to Fred Astaire, Stone’s heartfelt performance is a match for her co-star … and she does it backwards and in heels.
Bursting with infectious charm, La La Land harkens back to a popularist cinema that has long been overshadowed by franchise lust and blockbuster mentality. While not perhaps reaching the near mythic perfection it aspires to due to balancing issues in its narrative momentum and the occasionally corpulent nature of its efforts, if the film holds one true legacy it should be that crowd-pleasing cinema can be still be emotionally involving and delicate, rather than a mere bombardment of obvious and predictable pleasures on repeat.