Damien Chazelle follows up the brilliant Whiplash with La La Land, an exuberant, style-drenched tribute to bygone Hollywood musicals.
Emma Stone plays Mia, a coffee shop barista and unsuccessful actress of nevertheless considerable talent. Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a jaded but idealistic jazz pianist who is stuck playing Christmas jingles to unengaged restaurant clientele. After a fate puts each in the other’s orbit, the two dreamers inevitably strike up a whirlwind romance. Told over the course of the four seasons (with a poignant epilogue to finish), La La Land is a nostalgia-glazed ode to the silly romanticism of, say, Singing in the Rain. Much as The Artist did only a few years ago, Chazelle’s third feature is a swooning love-song to a whole movement of popular cinema. Fortunately, there is enough charm and verve, not least in the two lead performances, to wring plenty of life from what could have been unbearably treacly sentimentalism.
Stone and Gosling are impressive in all areas of performance – not least their dancing. The choreography (done by Mandy Moore) is playful throughout, and the leads deploy just the right mix of enthusiasm and nonchalance. Likewise, there is little reason for complaint in their singing; both are clear, expressive and in-tune. There are some familiar faces filling out the cast, the most enjoyable being J.K. Simmons, in an extended cameo as Sebastian’s overly cantankerous boss.
“the leads deploy just the right mix of enthusiasm and nonchalance”
There will almost certainly be a backlash against this film, in much the same way that The Artist came under scrutiny. The endless stream of references seems to court charges of either unoriginality or pandering. The truth is, however, there is an incredible audacity to making a film like La La Land. As a rule, most studios won’t touch original musicals with a ten foot pole, and it was in fact only after Whiplash’s success that Chazelle could find anyone to produce his long-standing passion project. Regardless of a long-passed historical precedent, it is incredibly unusual to see a new original musical in a cinema, and the fact that La La Land is so big and glamorous (with A-list stars and an acclaimed director) while remaining creatively successful makes it worthy of very high praise.
It may be you are one of the many people who don’t like musicals at all. If so, La La Land is very unlikely to change your mind. It is, to an extent, nothing more than an amalgam of many of the most notorious musicals ever committed to film. Underneath all the gooey retro schmaltz however, there beats a thoughtful, funny, and infectiously enthusiastic heart.
Image: Damien Chazelle