From moment one, La La Land is a film that joyfully blends the old and the new, the classic and the modern. It’s a celebration of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals, but not purely a nostalgic throwback. I actually wasn’t even sure of the time period in which it was supposed to take place for a while; beginning with a shot of cars waiting on a Los Angeles highway, the drivers quickly emerge and launch into infectious opening number ‘Another Day of Sun’, accompanied by dynamic camera moves that either are, or are skilfully edited to appear as if continuously unbroken. A traditional musical song shot in a technically dazzling contemporary manner; after the opening scene alone, I knew La La Land was going to be something special.
Sickeningly talented writer-director Damien Chazelle (who’s 31) fully delivers on the promise of Whiplash, demonstrating the kind of confidence in one scene to really grab your attention. It might be the most eye-catching opening sequence a young American director has used since the long take that started Boogie Nights. Is Damien Chazelle the new Paul Thomas Anderson, wunderkind of American independent cinema? On the strength of this film, he just might be.
The other incredible feat that Chazelle pulls off with La La Land is, directly related to his combining the old and the new, telling a story that somehow couples fantastical idealism with real-world struggles. This is a film about dreamers striving to achieve their dreams, but acknowledges that dreams are not so easy to achieve, and there are many obstacles along the way.
Our leads are, in their third cinematic pairing, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Gosling is not a name that comes to mind when thinking of old-fashioned style movie stars but his reserved yet rebellious image works well for his character here. Stone conversely has the bright enthusiasm and star quality of many of the names on the classic movie posters that adorn her character’s home. Needless to say, the pair have great chemistry together, something that could have stalled the film if they lacked.
Gosling plays Sebastian, a pianist and jazz enthusiast who laments the declining popularity of his preferred genre and desires to open his own club. Stone is Mia, an aspiring actress who works in a coffee shop at a film studio between failing auditions. Their initial encounters are quite hostile and resemble the entertaining prickliness of screwball comedies; one particularly funny moment occurs when Mia requests an eighties cover band Sebastian is begrudgingly playing keyboards for to play A Flock of Seagulls’ ‘I Ran’ just to aggravate him. They soon grow fonder of each other, as wonderfully communicated by a post party walk through the Hollywood hills where they sing ‘City of Stars’, one of several memorable songs from the film. Gosling isn’t the best singer, but that quality makes him a little more endearing here. Stone on the other hand has the pipes to really project, and gets a show-stopping solo number later in the film.
Mia and Sebastian’s courtship is generally very amusing to behold, particularly Sebastian’s attempts to turn Mia on to jazz (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn if his views reflect Chazelle’s own), but do on occasion dip into contrivance; such as when Sebastian learns that Mia has never seen Rebel Without a Cause it just happens to be playing at a local revival theatre for them to go and see. This is forgivable in the end though as it leads to another magical sequence in which the couple enter the Griffith observatory and literally take flight, which somehow doesn’t feel at all out of place.
You could say that Chazelle is reflecting on the very nature of musicals here; they’re inherently unrealistic, so using the songs to separate fantasy from reality could be an easy approach, but the musical numbers in La La Land, while arguably doing this inform the non-musical sections inseparably. Chazelle transitions between them incredibly well, often by having the lighting within the shot alter without cutting away, refocusing on a character and dimming out the background to show that they’re performing.
Of course, being a musical, the quality of the songs is of vital importance, and the work here by composer Justin Hurwitz is uniformly excellent. It really reminds you how rare it is to see a musical that’s entirely original, rather than just transposed from a stage show, I can’t remember the last time I saw a musical in which all of the songs were completely new to me (come to think of it, it was probably Team America). What’s also great about the music of La La Land is that there isn’t one obvious stand-out number to be forever associated with it. There are also a number of wonderful little lines within the lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul that reflect on the film as a whole (“here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem”). I wouldn’t be surprised if many people come out of this movie and immediately buy the soundtrack.
You could be forgiven for thinking that their romance was the primary force driving La La Land, and that once they were happily together that would be the end of it, but Chazelle quietly subverts this expectation by reaching that point quite early on. Again, escapist idealism is not entirely what this movie is about, there are plentiful moments of it, but they are always contrasted by real-life worries. As the film progresses, Chazelle introduces conflict into Mia and Sebastian’s relationship in a brilliantly understandable manner, which they then must navigate without ever falling into romantic comedy cliché.
What started out looking like it might be a more standard romantic storyline in a colourful musical setting becomes all the more unpredictable, and serious kudos to Chazelle for continuing to subtly subvert likely expectations throughout the film’s latter half, rendering La La Land something more rare; an all-singing, all-dancing musical that somehow simultaneously conveys the joys of filmic escapism while remaining relatable in its commentary of real life.
And then there’s the final scene.
I don’t want to go overboard with the hyperbole here but the final 10 or so minutes of La La Land amount to one of the best ending scenes a film has had in recent memory. It is astonishingly good, a profoundly moving conclusion that’s something I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I saw this film last week. It really takes this film beyond being a crowd-pleasing musical to a real conversation starter as well. It’s a perfect capper to one of the best movies of the year. A joyful celebration of life, music and cinema, I walked out of La La Land believing I’d probably seen the 2016 Best Picture winner, and I think I’d be A-OK with being proven correct there.