Film review by Jason Day of the modern-day musical La La Land, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
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Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) attends audition after audition but, despite giving some passionate performances, finds that she is either not what casting agents are looking for or that they are oblivious to what she is doing. Pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is gifted and imbued with the soul of classic jazz, but he is a perfectionist and difficult to work with. They meet by accident and through the course of a sun-drenched Los Angeles year they fall in love. But the call of their art forms threatens to separate them.
Review, by Jason Day
The path to great cinema can be a tricky one to tred.
Excited about seeing a preview of this latest film from the same writer/director as the bullyingly great Whiplash (2014), I trotted, nee skipped to my local cinema…only to be refused entrance, because my fellow compatriot wasn’t a member, as I proudly am.
Gutted, we made a night of it anyway and saw Collateral Beauty (2016) instead…and read that review to see why we may as well have gone home.
Thankfully, the suspense of seeing La La Land did not last as it was out on general release only a few days later. And what a refreshing tonic to the chaotic and chilly weather we’ve been experiencing in the UK of late (as I type, we have hail after a day of snow).
Of course, this being set in a Los Angeles year, every season spelt out on the screen is perpetual summer.
The look of La La Land is key to its success – the critics are going gaga over La La and it has just scooped seven Golden Globes, including Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for Stone.
The photography is bliss-inducing, with throbbing lighting and a broad, vivid colour scheme. Its all neon, then pastel, then strong, bold, primaries. Costumes, hair, suntanned bodies and make-up all add to the splendour.
In fact, here was so much loveliness to consume, my eyes hurt. After leaving the cinema, it felt as if my rods and cones had squeezed an all-weekend orgy in under two hours.
(That said, I have to mention that some shots are out of focus. Its most noticeable on close-us of Stone’s face – her nose appears fuzzy).
The production team ensures that the lead character’s tastes are reflected on and around them, from Sebastian’s snazzy Cuban collars and incredible array of golf shoes and reminders of classic Hollywood in film posters on Mia’s walls and murals across walls in downtown LA.
Chazelle is perhaps the last director I would have picked to make such a frothy, fun film, considering how dark and brutal Whiplash is. He shows here he is capable of turning his hand to create some beautiful, whimsical scenes.
At dinner with a boyfriend and his family who all ignore her, Mia beams widely when she hears Sebastian’s music. It calls to her and she rises from her seat and leaves, finally putting some sense and order to her romantic life.
At the planetarium, the two float into the air and dance among the space dust with the galaxy as their audience, twinkling in the background.
But that penchant for characters being uncompromising toward each other creeps out and this is the problem I had with completely enjoying La La Land.
I am no fan of musicals anyway (not all gay men like them); I find the dramatic bits more entertaining. I love the theatre but not the trills.
I do, however, admire the seamless way classic Hollywood musicals the seamless way marry the two sides of the film to each other. Looking at Gene Kelly in any of his greatest movies, he seems to constantly dance, even when talking a casual stroll. His light but sonorous voice warbles gently, even when given it down-time to have just a mere chat with his co-stars.
(On this point, singer John Legend shines in a supporting role as Sebastian’s friend Keith who is the unspoken origin of Sebastian’s troubles. I’ve never listened to Legend’s music but might well do after seeing him here; even when he talks, his silky voice seems to keep singing).
I liked La La Land, but it is resolutely two distinct films battling for prominence in the same production. During a heated argument as Gosling cooks dinner, this is most readily apparent. This scene is drawn out and boomingly distinct from the light and airy feel to the other half of the film.
I see how Chazelle is exploring their professional passions driving a wedge between their personal union and has their conflict shown in contrast to the peppy world he depicts outside and it’s certainly a jarring bump back down into your seat when he’s made you float with the stars among the stars.
But I needed consistency, flow if you like, for what is, in essence, a breezy song and dance number in the city of angels.
But this, I suspect, was not the point with making La La Land, as the cute musical numbers still work extremely well. There is a definite raggedy, raw feel to the choreography, but its in keeping with the struggling artists theme of the film. I actually prefer this to the too-perfect, Busby Berkeley-esque dancing in more famous musical.
Gosling and Stone help you overcome such peaks and troughs with adorable mutual appreciation in enormous close-up. They are a hugely attractive pairing, clearly relishing the opportunity to cut loose with each other on screen again (they previously co-starred in Crazy, Stupid, Love in 2011).
Its particularly good to see Gosling having a blast and breaking away from the serious, monosyllabic, sexy loner guy image of his.
Stone’s huge-eyed, sweet appearance belies the steel of her character, despite the cliche of the struggling actress desperate for a break role. She is as peppy and fresh as a Californian ocean breeze.
This was more than likely never intended to be a classic Hollywood musical of yore, but it is a fantastic imitation of one none the less.
Cast & credits
Director: Damien Chazelle. 128mins. Black Label Media/Gilbert Films/Imposter Pictures/Marc Platt Productions. (12a)
Producers: Fred Berger, Gary Gilbert, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt.
Writer: Damien Chazelle.
Camera: Linus Sandgren.
Music: Justin Hurwitz.
Sets: David Wasco.
Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, J.K. Simmons, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Rosemarie DeWitt.