La La Land, 2016.
Directed by Damien Chazelle.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend and J.K. Simmons.
In Los Angeles, aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) works in the coffee shop on the Warner Brothers’ lot and goes to auditions. Jazz devotee and struggling musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) resorts to playing at weddings, parties and the occasional hotel. Their paths cross several times before an attraction ignites and they seem the ideal couple. But when success calls on him, it starts to drive them apart, as they’re forced to choose between their respective ambitions and dreams and each other.
This was the film that everybody was talking about at this year’s LFF, that everybody wanted to see. The tickets sold out weeks in advance, more were added and disappeared in the blink of an eye and, at the one and only press screening, word was that over 100 people had to be turned away.
So what’s all the fuss about? The fact that it’s the second film from director Damien Chazelle, whose Whiplash was the big hit of 2014’s LFF, had something to do with it. But it was that rapturous reception in Venice that sealed its reputation. Since then, it’s tap danced its way to the head of the awards queue and is currently the hot favourite for just about every Best Picture trophy going.
And it deserves all that fuss and excitement. In a year stuffed with re-makes and re-boots, La La Land stands out, firstly because it’s a musical but also because it’s a genuine original, not the adaptation of a stage show. That, however, is just the beginning.
It’s a film with a spring in its step and a twinkle in its eye. And a very knowing twinkle at that, because it’s full of references and affectionate pastiches of others movies, musical and otherwise, as well as creating glorious dance sequences that are little fantasies in their own right yet still manage to stay grounded in something approaching reality. The opening routine, with its echoes of West Side Story, takes place during a traffic jam on the freeway. And later, when Gosling and Stone are building up to a dance in the Hollywood hills, she changes out of her heels into her dancing shoes as they talk. It’s the mark of a director brimming with confidence, one who’s matured since his first feature and knows it.
There’s no mistaking this is a Chazelle film. Jazz pulses through its veins and Gosling’s Sebastian is passionate about it, almost as much as Fletcher and his pupils in Whiplash, yet he’s such a purist he’s stuck in a timewarp, wanting to keep the music as it is. But, when he gets the opportunity to join a high profile band, run by Keith (John Legend, in a nod towards contemporary culture) and which plays a mixture of contemporary jazz and something more adventurous, he has to learn to compromise if he wants to achieve his dream.
Chazelle’s love of razor sharp editing is still in evidence, shots changing in a heartbeat and giving the film plenty of energy and exuberance. The two main stars are perfectly cast – and both more than passable dancers – with genuine on-screen chemistry. Their banter is slick, dry and always convincing, as is the way they look at each other.
There’s a serious amount to like, if not love, about La La Land. It my not have the adrenaline rush of Whiplash, but it has something more instead. A sophistication, an elegance and a lightness of touch combined with intricate, precise detail. Proof, not that it’s needed, that Chazelle isn’t a just one hit wonder. If Whiplash made you buzz, La La Land will make your heart sing.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★