UK Release Date: 13th January 2017
Runtime: 128 minutes
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, Finn Wittrock, JK Simmons
Synopsis: An aspiring actress and a frustrated jazz pianist meet by chance as they each try to make it in Los Angeles and embark on a whirlwind romance that leads them to question their career paths.
Every year, one film emerges from festival season as the major frontrunner for Best Picture at the Oscars, which can often be almost a year away at the time. This time around, the critical hype train has firmly got behind La La Land. From Whiplash director Damien Chazelle, the film is a loving musical ode to Hollywood’s golden age where the likes of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire danced and sung their way into cultural history. It’s a magical cinematic experience that marks Chazelle out as one of the most impressive voices working in the movies today.
Mia (Emma Stone) attends hundreds of unsuccessful auditions while working as a barista on a Los Angeles studio lot. She wanders into a restaurant one night after a party and finds Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) playing an emotional piano piece. After a number of chance encounters, the pair start a relationship as they both try to carve out the lives and careers they want. When Sebastian joins a band fronted by old friend Keith (John Legend) and Mia mounts an ambitious one woman show, the couple are forced to compromise and consider where their lives are heading.
A movie with the hype of La La Land behind it always faces a tough challenge when it finally reaches cinemas. Thankfully, Chazelle is up to the challenge and has constructed a delightful love letter to the musicals of both past and present. It’s directed with a classy, but kinetic, camera that never seems to sit still and appears as enamoured with the near-mythical status of LA as the characters are. Chazelle seems to see cutting as optional and regularly allows musical numbers to unfold in seemingly endless takes that are wonderfully artful and serve as a compromise to the often quite frantic editing of Whiplash.
The two central performers, too, are excellent. Gosling has remarkable star charisma and comes off very well as the slightly conceited jazz enthusiast seduced into a world rather lacking in artistic purity. He showcased real flair for physical comedy in The Nice Guys and that comes into good use here, alongside some impressive tap dancing ability that suggests he definitely picked up some moves in his old Disney days. The true star of La La Land, though, is Emma Stone. She is likely to win all of the awards and completely deserves them with a performance that is spiky, strong and utterly heart-breaking. Her heartfelt audition song towards the end of the film is a beautiful highlight that is directed with admirable restraint by Chazelle.
Crucially, though, La La Land did not cast the same spell on me as it has on others. The middle section loses the momentum gathered by the whirlwind first act and the final hour is a mess that, whilst admirably structurally audacious, serves to undermine the relatively simple story at the film’s heart. The songs, too, seem to dry up and, but for a few excellent tracks, there are few standout numbers here. It certainly doesn’t have the charm of a John Carney film and, though its ending is brave and surprising, it lacks the emotional punch it needs to make the film an all-time classic.
La La Land is a technicolour blast of energy and joy at its best moments, but can be a rather wordy, sullen film in the weaker moments of its slightly excessive running time. Chazelle is smart in his evocation of the power of dreams and the way life throws obstacles in the way of them, recalling Whiplash in his take on the way success does not come easily and is seldom pretty. For me, it’s that film that remains Chazelle’s masterwork, but there’s certainly plenty here to further a statement that will surely become axiomatic in due time – the man is a genius.
Pop or Poop?
With expectations weighing heavily on its widescreen shoulders, La La Land was always going to struggle to be what it needed to be. However, with the triumvirate of Chazelle, Stone and Gosling on the task, the film emerges as a real triumph – albeit a flawed one.
A few more killer songs would have been welcome and a little narrative pruning would have helped focus the tale, but this is filmmaking with a smile and a song. Believe the hype? Just about.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.