Believe the hype. La La Land is a giddy, affectionate ode to old style European musicals, the golden years of Hollywood and A Flock of Seagulls.
Damien Chazelle’s love of jazz continues to inform his cinematic choices. The protagonist in his first film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, was a jazz trumpeter, in his second, Whiplash, he was a jazz drummer, and in La La Land, he’s a jazz pianist.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) isn’t just any jazz pianist, he’s a purist with high ideals. He’s moved to L.A. with plans of opening his own jazz club. He pays little head to economic logistics. He’s found just the place, a site with great importance in the history of jazz, and he wants to rescue it from it’s current plight as a samba and tapas bar and restore to a venue that plays only ‘pure jazz’.
After an impressive one-take, large scale song and dance number on the L.A. freeway, we meet Sebastian, who has a cursory road rage moment with Mia (Emma Stone).
Mia is also fairly new to L.A., and has equally tunnel visioned dreams of being a successful actress. After a particularly dehumanising audition, she has another fleeting altercation with Sebastian. She walks into the restaurant where he’s playing the piano. She’s awestruck by the beauty of his playing, but her gushing compliment is cut short by his angrily hasty exit. We find out later that he’s just been fired from his gig by boss Bill (J.K. Simmons, reversing his Whiplash role and playing a musical philistine this time).
It isn’t until their third chance encounter, some time later, that the two have a proper conversation. Sebastian is playing keyboards for an 80s cover band at a party, and Mia is still a barista gunning for her big break.
It’s not exactly love at third sight. Or is it? There’s a fair amount of ribbing on both parts regarding the lack of progress they’ve made in their respective vocations, but as day turns to night, the sparks ignite. Mia and Sebastian are soon singing and dancing their way through a whirlwind romance in a way that hasn’t been done in the movies for a good 50 years or so. For this is an irony-free homage to the films of Jacques Demy and Vincente Minnelli, where to profess your love through song feels like a very natural thing to do.
The star crossed lovers move in together and support each other’s ambitions, which brings with it it’s own series of challenges and tribulations.
Gosling and Stone create chemistry to burn. A celestial scene at an observatory reminds you just how much more fun this is than when Stone was slumming it with Colin Firth in Magic in the Moonlight. Gosling and Stone deliver their smugly snappy banter with the kind of casual ease that has you believing they probably talk to each other like this in real life.
Gosling, looking very sharp in an impressive array of smartly cut suits, is every bit as smooth and brooding as he should be, but it’s Stone who is the real knockout. Sure, she has the flashier role, turning on the actorly fireworks in one audition after the other, but even in her quieter moments, those big saucer eyes just suck you in. Her lightning quick emotional shifts are extraordinary.
The musical set-pieces are actually few and far between, and with the exception of the instantly catchy City of Stars, the decidedly non-jazz numbers by the songwriting team of Hurwitz, Pasek and Paul, aren’t anything to write home about.
John Legend pops up as a jazz crossover artist that Sebastian teams up with for strictly economic reasons, and lends his songwriting talents to one of the big numbers.
Chazelle is such a consummate craftsman, the whole production is a very glossy, swoony affair. Chaptering his story by the seasons of the year affords him the opportunity to ramp up the colour palette. Linus Sandgren’s silky smooth camerawork glides through intricately staged choreography and soars through the midnight blue L.A. skies adorning the numerous scenes shot during magic hour, when the sun has set but there is still some light in the sky.
The final number, which tracks back through previous scenes, offering alternate outcomes, had one single action been exchanged for another, is absolute alchemy. It reminds us of all the opportunities and possibilities that are out there, and how easily and unknowingly the course of our destinations can change.
After such a brutal 2016 in so many ways, La La Land is just the kind of elegantly charming celebration of love, cinema and music that we need.
La La Land is in cinemas from December 25
Richard Leathem @dickiegee