La La Land (2016)
Thus far with this feature, we’ve been focusing on the darker side of Tinsel town which is mainly because most of the best films about Hollywood seem to also hate Hollywood. So let’s lighten things up with a bit of music.
Released just a few short years ago to widespread acclaim and awards galore (including the Oscar for Best Picture…..for about 2 minutes) is Damien Chazelle’s all singing all dancing love letter to the City of Dreams known as La La Land.
La La Land follows the intertwined stories of two people trying to follow their dreams in Los Angeles; Sebastian a pianist trying to bring his love of Jazz to the masses and Mia an actress struggling to break her way through to cinematic stardom.
After heaping praise on First Man last week in my space feature (feel free to read it here) I yet again find myself in the company of rising cinematic wunderkind Damien Chazelle.
This time around, however, Mr Chazelle has much more of a challenge winning my heart, because I really don’t like musicals. I don’t hate them outright but I just can’t get into them the same way I do with other genres. Yet, by some kind of miracle, Chazelles has managed to create a musical that even a cynic like me can’t help but fall head over heels for.
The performances of the film’s lead duo of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (their third pairing) as Sebastian and Mia respectively is a cinematic pairing made in heaven with the two delivering some of the finest work of their respective careers.
Gosling’s portrayal of Sebastian is a complicated one in that although, it could be argued that sometimes the character can come off as a rather self-righteous “I’m the one to save Jazz” hipster type, Gosling’s charming and often cool manner somehow allows him to overcome the character’s shortcomings.
Sure he’s a bit angsty douche over his music, but Gosling somehow manages to translate those unlikeable qualities into someone whose passion and drive to spread the music that he loves into those that are rather admirable and perhaps even relatable. It also doesn’t hurt that Gosling is so damn handsome in this film that it’s downright evil.
However, it is Stone whose stars shines brightest of all, giving a performance that is is one of her greatest thus far. Stone manages to create a character whose determination is infectious and whose personality is so damned intoxicating and charming that it hurts. It’s these qualities which only serve to make the numerous rejections and heartbreaks she endures able to punch through to even the coldest of hearts and gain our sympathies. Yet through it all, we root for her to succeed against it all and become the star she deserves.
The pair are stellar on their own but put them together and you have got yourself some real magic. The chemistry between the two is unreal, with the pair managing to run the relationship gambit of hating each other to loving each other with a natural grace and authenticity that is sorely lacking from most romance films. I especially love that final look that the pair share just before the credits roll with the pair’s knowing smile and Gosling’s subtle nod of his head having far more passion and poignancy in it than any of the grandest of cinematic romantic declarations.
The film’s portrayal of Hollywood while far less cynical than the other films I’ve discussed in this feature still doesn’t shy away from showing the painful humiliation and rejection that is an all too common part of the road to fame. It’s is genuinely sad when Mia puts on a one-woman show that very few attend, with those who do quietly mocking her behind her back. Or to see Sebastian give up on his dreams of opening a Jazz club to play in a band whose music he hates just so he can have a steady job.
In the end, though, the film is a hopeful tale that suggests that there is a light at the end of it all and that dreams can come true if you just keep at them. It’s a rather admirable story that one can’t help but reflects Chazelle’s own struggles in Hollywood in which he faced rejection and compromise in an attempt to bring his passion project to the big screen making the film all the more impactful for it.
With La La Land, Chazelle and his composer Justin Hurwitz attempt something that is very rarely done nowadays; a big-screen Hollywood musical with original songs.
The musical sequences are where I often lose interest when watching musicals. With the act of stopping the plot so the characters can have a song and dance doing nothing but taking me out of the film. In the case of La La Land though, Chazelle and Hurwitz have me in the palms of their hands, creating musical sequences that are not only visually spectacular master crafts of choreography and cinematography but also manage to have more than few catchy songs that I’ll be humming to myself for a while.
My favourite is “City of Stars”, in part due to its rather simplistic yet memorable key theme and rather low key approach, with Gosling calmly walking on a pier whistling and singing to himself. The song is made even better when it is reprised by Gosling with Stone joining in, the pair’s duet being a lovely treat to listen to. I also like the very simplistic yet heartfelt final solo song from Stone (who is the better singer of the lead pair) entitled “Audition (The Fool Who Dreams)” which just features her singing a beautiful song that seals her fate as a star.
The musical scenes need not be sing-alongs to get your toes tapping with the film often at its best in the various extended and visually beautiful dance sequences, whether it be the gravity-defying dance among the stars or the technically impressive one-take shot in which Gosling and Stone stop for a tap dance while looking for her car. I especially love the cinematography in these sequences and the way the camera just effortlessly glides around and above the performers, almost as if it’s dancing alongside them.
I especially adore the film’s the spectacular and poignant finale that acts as Chazelle’s love letter to the classic Hollywood musical, featuring visual throwbacks to the likes of Singin in the Rain, An American in Paris and many other Hollywood musicals that I really should go and take a look at. It’s a sequence in which all the films elements which until now had already been outstanding are elevated to create something truly magical.
La La Land is a beautiful film and while its story of romance and the struggle for fame might not be the most original, the sheer level of passion that Chazelle and company bring to it makes it so that by the end, you’re too swept up by the magic of it all to notice. Check this one out, even if, like me, you can’t stand musicals.
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