So does La La Land live up to the hype?
Ah, remember Whiplash? It was pretty spectacular output from director Damien Chazelle, but landed at the exact time of Birdman – which also dealt with a particular brand of New York showmanship. Of course, this engineered nothing short of all out war between the two, with audiences cast as the fraught middle-man. To my mind Inarritu’s film, Birdman, was far superior by using its cinematography and cannily chosen actors to meta-out the situation as well as providing the more imaginative, powerful, and distinctive piece (if not necessarily the most emotional). How strange, then, to find that for his next film Chazelle had not only cast one of the leads of Birdman (Emma Stone), but also aped the ‘single-take’ style for a lot of his shots. Hell, he’s even quoting the movie as a source of ideas; perhaps the micro-war had provided some alternative inspiration.
In any case, La La Land arrives on the cold shores of the UK with much anticipation. It has been called ‘the best film of 2016’, given five star rave reviews by many distinguished critics, and has been thrust into the Oscar race for any number of awards. Of course, it’s a snug fit; the only thing the Academy likes as much as guilt film-making (the awful 12 Years a Slave), or actor suffering (The Revenant), is itself. One need only look back to 2011’s superb Best Film winner The Artist to see that Hollywood would like to be revered as the dream factory it once was, and could still be.
We open on a bustling freeway: horns honking, windows open, radios duelling with their programming as if creatures in battle, an interesting metaphor given the film’s frequent comment on genre-relations. Suddenly, inexplicably, one driver bursts into song – quickly followed by some one hundred (or more) others. Chazelle’s lens dances around these performers without stopping to blink or disrupt the organic flow. For those viewers who tend to stoop towards cynicism (myself included), this may seem a little grating. After all, there’s a reason why cinematic tastes have swerved from endless optimism towards a certain type of heartless nihilism. Yet, like it or loathe it, it’s a tonal watermark for the rest of La La Land. If you give into it and go with the flow you’re sure to have a much better time.
As this opening number fades out, we first set eyes on our two magnetic leads – flipping the bird at each other in a traffic jam. Just one of the few flourishes (car models, decor, that PG-13 ‘fuck’) that we’re supposed to take as evidence of modernization in the world – removed from the 1940s and 50s pieces that Chazelle is clearly enamored with. Of course, by way of tradition, these two characters are destined to cross paths seemingly at random.
Ryan Gosling’s Seb is a disillusioned, antisocial, obsessive jazz musician with unfulfilled dreams of opening his own club (seemingly to safeguard the medium). As expected, he’s the perfect fit for the role: charismatic, enigmatic, and evocative of a certain Hollywood je ne sais quoi that fits like a lost jigsaw piece into Chazelle’s narrative. At times, he approaches the depths that he reached in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Only God Forgives, with a haunting stare that construes emotion quite unlike anyone else working in the industry today. Working in a dead-end job at a cheap bar, Seb prefers to listen and play free-jazz (as much as his boss JK Simmons would prefer Christmas muzak) but seems trapped in a cycle of poverty and cheap 80’s cover bands. His true struggle isn’t really to get by, but to make the choice between pursing his risky dream or going with his friend’s (John Legend playing himself) tacky but incredibly popular pop-soul outfit.
Similarly marred by LA society is Emma Stone’s Mia; the ‘aspiring actress’ type who just can’t seem to crack the movie biz. She may indeed be a walking cliché but, then again, I think we can all agree that clichés are clichés for a reason. The funny thing about this (as Mark Kermode has similarly noted) is that her auditions are truly stand-out performances. In one particularly memorable scene, she stages a breakdown in front of her audience, before being shrugged off even though her skill is clearly greater than half of the actors working in the industry right now. In any case, Mia’s problem is finding somebody to believe in her, and to catch the break that she needs.
Two dreamers, drifting through the smog and chaos of LA life. Living in the artificial environments of studios and piano bars: to all extents, perfect for each other.
And so, the odyssey that is La La Land begins. We follow an emotional roller-coaster of ups and downs (mostly downs) that chart the course of this relationship. And, indeed, despite its beauty and hopeful tone there’s a distinctly melancholy edge to the picture that lingers long after the credits roll. Is it the loss of the glamour and excitement of the 40s? Or is it the constant little reminders that we so rarely are able to achieve our dreams? Or perhaps it’s the fact that we just can’t see this relationship working out. Chazelle peppers his film with little indicators of negative modernisation: a cinema where the two watch Rebel Without a Cause is derelict and closed but a few weeks later.
In any case, suffice to say, this movie is nigh on perfect. The lead performances are spot on, the colour palette is exciting and primary (a dance scene set over a sunset is particularly memorable) and the narrative wraps itself up into a neat little present that is promptly unwrapped to reveal a great den of cinematic and aural delights in the final five minutes. For those of you who have viewed the trailer, all of the experimentation with film stock, ageing, and colouring technique occurs in these final moments – and it seems a perfect digestif to an exemplary experience.
The musical numbers themselves, although they suffice, are by no means exemplary. Perhaps ‘City of Stars’ or ‘Someone in the Crowd’ approach catchy/memorable status – but the rest of the musical endeavours, whilst by no means bad, have little spark. Which makes sense, to be honest, as Chazelle travels down the Whiplash template of intimate jazz – and often instrumental pieces prove to be just as important as the big numbers. In truth, we never really witness anything on the scale of the opening number. Despite being a rather lavish production, La La Land feels anything but distanced. Perhaps the toned-down musicality, coupled with the sparse pacing of numbers (there’s maybe 6 maximum) has helped with this.
Of course, aside from the jazz which we already knew he could do, Chazelle really had his work cut out in trying to pay tribute to the medium of film. And, I have to say, from the style of the credits to the use of locations from Casablanca and Rebel Without a Cause and the old-fashioned mannerisms; he does a really damn good job. And, I guess, that’s the thing that makes it a shoe-in for the Oscar.
Palette-wise, we veer from the brightest rainbow-ranges in the daytime (everything is pristine and poster-coloured on the sets) to a magical purple hue in the evening, with stars penetrating the sky (despite this being somewhat unrealistic in the smoggy city) and magic in the air. In fact, at times, a dose of magical realism is employed to show the couple floating or flying through the air.
By the time the credits roll things haven’t necessarily turned out the way that we had hoped, or expected, but there’s a tangible sense of hope in the air: beckoning you through the theatre doors and into the moonlight with a spring in your step. At the start of 2017, after a long, hard year, La La Land provides that exact dose of optimism and escapism that audiences are craving. Sure, shit happens, but life is beautiful beyond imagination. I didn’t know whether to clap or cry.
Images: Dale Robinette