Kicking off with one hell of a musical number, La La Land casts its spell early on, pulling you in close, smoothly swaying you this way and that, until it leaves you, teary, grinning, mesmerised at what has just been.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) has aimed high with La La Land, a romantic musical carrying nods to the cinematic sensibilities of Hollywood fare long gone and a confidence that assures you that you’re in good hands at almost every turn. More than the fact original musicals have become a rare gift at movie houses, La La Land is a film that looks to take you on an emotional journey using a stupefying array of tools from the medium that is cinema. You’ll laugh, swoon, cry, and think about the life choices that have come, gone and are yet to arrive. Most importantly, you’ll have a great time.
Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz pianist who dreams of one day opening up his own jazz club, and Emma Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actress. The two run into one another a few times, and not always smoothly, before they fall in love. And thus begins a relationship in which aspirations and love will both work hand in hand and clash, a love that will try hold against the waves of expectations, societal pressures, and ambitions.
There’s no denying that, at least on face value, La La Land has a thin narrative. It’s a straightforward, uncomplicated plot, but it’s the emotions, the performances, and the film’s determination to win the viewer that provides all the depth you could hope for. The joys and struggle of trying to catch a dream have rarely been explored so beautifully on screen, especially while attempting to pay homage to the style of musical MGM used to produce and showcasing ambitious throwbacks in the midst of a present-day setting. You haven’t seen L.A. like this since, well, those musicals.
It’s downright impressive the way Chazelle transitions between musical and drama. Tone and emotion is principal here, keeping us with both Sebastian and Mia throughout their ups and downs, in line with their happiness and heartbreak. Justin Hurwitz’s music drives it perfectly, confidently filling us with joy or sadness and never outstaying its welcome. Even theme variations are used to great emotional effect. Although there are only a handful of songs, not counting when a reprise kicks in, they’re used sparingly and at just the right moments. When things get more serious, Chazelle opts to quieten things down a bit. Life isn’t always going great, and when it isn’t, the last thing one has in mind is the swelling of a catchy tune.
Chazelle’s direction in Whiplash was outstanding, and somehow, it seems even stronger here. He’s certainly got a strong filmmaking team with him, and everyone, I mean everyone, is on point. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle), production designer David Wasco (Pulp Fiction), editor Tom Cross (Whiplash), the list goes on and on. It’s the type of film where one scene alone can show off an array of skill, as we follow two talking heads directly into a camera-swinging song and dance number, often in attention-grabbing, long, beautifully choreographed takes.
Of course, as with most films boasting impressive teams of talent, all the great work would hit a ceiling if those ultimately in focus aren’t on their A game. Thankfully, Gosling and Stone are both magnificent. Carrying a tangible chemistry, arguably helped by this being their third film together (following Crazy, Stupid, Love. and Gangster Squad), our two leads have rarely been better. Gosling balances out strong-headedness with charm and clear talent, while Stone gives what could be her best performance thus far, shining in a beautifully written role that gives her arguably the strongest arc of the two. Together, they’re a joy.
Now, before we close, a film of such mastery is left victim to even the most slightest of qualms. If wrinkles are to be found, one would be with the slight pacing issue that arises around the three-quarter mark, which dips into one point in the narrative and drags out the melodrama for a bit too long. Also, as great as Gosling and Stone are, their musical notes aren’t always quite there. These are very minor reservations – I can’t stress that enough, but I’d be remiss if I were to omit them from the review.
Chazelle has followed up the great Whiplash with another outstanding picture. La La Land proudly puts character and emotion first and backs them up with an infectious love for music and cinema, continuously pulling out all the stops at its disposal. You’ll walk away having been on a journey, and hopefully, thinking about where you want your journey to take you. Here’s to the ones that dream.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10