Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, Rosemary DeWitt, J.K. Simmons
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: January 13th
Given its ‘you will bleed for your craft’ message, it’s easy to imagine that Whiplash director Damien Chazelle has a pretty complicated history with music. A former jazz drummer himself, he funnelled experience into a story about how striving for musical perfection can destroy relationships and ultimately oneself. He may have accepted that greatness was unattainable in one medium but is using that to chase it in another, currently with La La Land, a bold and bright love letter to MGM musicals.
La La Land makes for one of the most visually arresting movies in recent memory, buoyed by Linus Sandgren’s sparkling cinematography. L.A. exists primarily in a lush purple perma-dusk and Chazelle shows a bravado in how he stages his big polychromatic number. He opts for sprawling one-takes, like its effulgent traffic-jam set opener ‘Another Day of Sun’ that, while veering uncomfortably close to being that Gap ad, is an injection of hope highlighted by a group of people who don’t want to road rage murder each other during rush hour. He revels, too, in running the gamut of Hollywood musicals, from big sound stage musicals to Esther Williams aquatics.
Chazelle originally had Emma Watson and Miles Teller as his leads and their replacements serve La La Land so much better, allowing him to age Mia and Sebastian up and make their struggles carry more weight. They’re not fresh off the boat in L.A., they’re the battle-hardened personification of living a life you hate to chase a dream. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling give enough sense of jaded disa\ppoinment to imagine that it hasn’t been a case of a big city chewing them up and spitting them out, they just might not have be good enough.
And then there’s the chemistry you get with Gosling and Stone. Their screen presence together in Crazy, Stupid, Love was its highlight and both held their own against Sean Penn’s nose prosthetic in Gangster Squad, but considering neither can really sing or dance all that well, their relationship is the making or breaking of La La Land. Their courtship is charming and refreshing — it’s Mia who pursues Sebastian — while their moments of tenderness and dance at the planetarium at the Griffith Observatory will have you as awestruck as Nelson Muntz during a second encore of ‘Moon River’ at an Andy Williams concert.
It’s a return to form and a welcome acceptance of leading man status for Gosling, too long a vessel for tortured masculinity when a born entertainer adroit at a little soft shoe was hiding away. Sebastian is a slightly preposterous creation (he’s really into jazz!) who, while flat broke balks at a paid gig that involves playing pop music with a keyboard like he’s the living embodiment of LCD Soundsytem’s ‘Losing My Edge’ — he wants to make something real, he wants to make a Yaz record. Yet Gosling rounds him with enough charm and a knowingness of Sebastian’s pomposity.
Mia’s pursuit of Sebastian, and his early brusque rejections, gives a refreshing spin on budding romance and makes its payoff — Sebastian begrudgingly playing a Flock of Seagulls cover before a twilight dance — all the more earned. Stone plays Mia as spirited yet world weary, culminating in an audition which while not quite ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is an incredibly affecting rendering of someone void of cynicism and not giving up on hope.
The focus remains so tightly on its enthralling leads that there’s not a lot for its small supporting cast to work with: J.K. Simmons’ role is a single joke (the jazz guy from Whiplash hates jazz!) but he nails it; Rosemary DeWitt gets short shrift as Seb’s concerned sister; and the less mentioned about John Legend and his godawful adult contemporary number, the better. Minor faults aside — like, say its paper-thin plot — La La Land is a pure sensory joy, a celebration of the frisson of young love and the perfect platform for one of the great double acts of their generation.