The explosive all-singing, all-dancing meet-cute in the opening scenes of La La Land were almost enough to put me off – almost. Not one for musicals, I opted to go and see this one because it comes from Damien Chazelle – surely the most talented new film director out there. That’s perhaps a bold statement. But just take a look at the phenomenal success of Whiplash in 2014, which he both wrote and directed. It’s my favourite film to date; so I knew I couldn’t miss this second offering from Chazelle. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have always impressed so my hopes were high.
There’s a reason this production cleaned up at the Golden Globes. Chazelle has an incredible knack for storytelling. Storytelling that is so compelling that the characters become yours, and you root for them with every fibre of your being. They leap out at you in a symphony of colour and clever technical tricks (Griffith Observatory scene – see it if only for that) that leave you reeling. It’s a beautiful nod to the golden age of filmmaking in Hollywood. Costumes that change in every scene and which make use of the brightest palette; sweeping backdrops; and hazy jazz bars which send the tinkle of piano keys wafting into the night.
But it is also modern. The title refers to the city of Los Angeles as well as the idiom for being out of touch with reality – and the pressures of lining the pockets are all too real for Sebastian (Gosling) and Mia (Stone) as they dance their dance under the LA lights. Their romance is real and complex; they support each other in their dreams and neither expects the other to give up. In doing so they risk their relationship as they start to move towards different spheres.
Emma Stone is absolutely spellbinding. Her voice so perfectly reflects Mia’s confidence; fragile at first; then finding it’s strength in her final audition song as she sings ‘here’s to the ones who dream’; a message which resonates long after the final scene. Gosling is typically more silent and brooding but his ability to grasp us, as we sit in suspense, is superb.
The best thing about this film for me, which really created this sense of storytelling, is the single shots. Chazelle employed the same technique in Whiplash to astounding effect. In fact, as you watch, you realise – something doesn’t quite feel right. You are switched on. Thanks to the single takes, we never once, for a second, lose sight of our characters stories and emotions. We are tuned in – the whole way through the scene. It’s this technique which allows the suspense to build and the tension between the characters to become electrifying. The cinematography is astounding as the camera sweeps and roves around a continuing scene, all the while capturing the most essential expressions and body language. Reminiscent of the 2014 film Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) also starring Emma Stone, which used the same technique to its great success. It seems there is a revolution happening in the film scene as musicals and theatre are reproduced in increasingly accessible ways.
The balance between beautiful, moving songs (composed by Justin Hurwitz) and a well-structured, compelling plot is spot-on, neither alienating the less avid musical fan, nor leaving the hard-core fans feeling hard done-by. This film is timeless and utterly enchanting. Already a classic.
Photo by Dale Robinette