It’s difficult for any movie to live up to the hype which has danced around La La Land since it debuted in Venice last August. Critics have been so taken with Damien Chazelle’s modern musical that despite the genre having been mostly snubbed by Academy members over the past few decades, it has become a hot favourite to dominate next month’s Oscars. Miraculously, this is one film that lives up to the praise.
La La Land opens with an elaborate traffic jam-based song-and-dance number recalling the days of musical Hollywood epics. We meet Mia (Stone), a struggling actress and Sebastian (Gosling), a talented jazz pianist forced to play anodyne Christmas songs for the uninterested patrons of a restaurant whose owner, played by J.K. Simmons, fires him after he strays from his desired playlist.
Despite an initial road rage incident, the pair hit it off, bonding over their love of music, thwarted artistic careers and desire to make it big. Gosling is perfectly cast as the cynical musician who only truly comes alive in the presence of a piano or a Miles Davis LP, yet it is Stone who steals the show as the sensitive but tough and ambitious Mia.
If the movie kept up its initial bouncy showtune style, La La Land may have quickly begun to grate but Chazelle’s skill at pacing and tone mean that the show-stopping musical numbers are broken up by meditations on the nature of romance and genuinely comic moments. One particular funny scene sees Mia turn up at a party only to find Sebastian is performing in a 1980s cover band. Aware of how soul-destroying he finds his situation, she requests that the band play I Ran by bouffanted New Wave band A Flock of Seagulls.
After she blows off a date to join him at the cinema, the couple embark on a relationship that initially appears perfect as they foster each others’ ambitions. Mia’s is to write and perform in her own one woman play, Sebastian’s to own a jazz club. However, when he agrees to join his old schoolmate Keith (John Legend) in a band with more interest in pop success than musical integrity, they begin to question their relationship due to their diverging views on success and artistry.
La La Land is technically dazzling and beautifully acted and Whiplash director Chazelle, who also wrote the screenplay, constantly provides film fans with knowing nods to magical musicals of days gone by, with Singin’ in the Rain a prominent reference point. All these make La La Land worthy of the accolades that have come flooding in.
Yet what makes La La Land more than just a filmmaking tour de force is its use of its Hollywood setting to explore more universal themes. Its tale of two wannabes reconciling love and their passions with climbing the rungs of the ladder to stardom is dealt with deftly enough by its cast and director for it to strike a chord with anyone whose drive to achieve their dreams has run into the complexities of life and love. As a result, it will delight more than just those who long for a return to the days of Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
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