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La La LandUSA 2016
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Running time 128 minutes
Synopsis: After almost meeting on several occasions, aspiring starlet Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and passionate jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) finally meet for real at a Hollywood pool party and quickly fall in love. Each tries to inspire the other to realise their dreams. But in the city where dreams are made, things don’t come easily for these two lovers who ultimately must choose between the dream and reality; love and fame.
About an hour into this wonderful film I suddenly realised that I hadn’t stopped smiling since the retro-style graphic for CinemaScope filled the screen just before giving way to the film’s all-singing, all-dancing, big-production opening number set in a traffic jam on an LA freeway. Yes, it’s a movie musical. And yes, it’s shot on film in CinemaScope and yes, it’s terrific.
After the success of his second film, Whiplash (2014), writer/director Damien Chazelle clearly has a more ambitious vision and a bigger budget to help him realise it. Often that kind of scaling up can spell disaster but in this case Chazelle has a firm hand on the rudder and knows exactly what he wants to put up on the screen. And what he brings us is an unashamed homage to the big screen movie musicals of the ‘40s and ‘50s with more than a nod to some of the greats, most notably Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's Singin’ in the Rain (1952) a period style which the Coen Brothers had fun parodying earlier this year with their On The Town-ish sequence in Hail Caesar! but what Chazelle has created here is the real deal created for a 21st century audience. He’s made the movie musical work again.
A big part of the film’s success is the casting. Apart from a nice little cameo from Whiplash Oscar winner JK Simmons and a strong performance (both musically and in character) from singer-songwriter John Legend, the film belongs to Stone and Gosling who are magnetic on screen, both with each other and for the audience. They’re not just movie stars, they’re actors. But they’re not just actors, they’re movie stars! It’s this rare mix of screen charisma and depth of performance that sets them apart from many other actors of their generation. But they’re not doing this alone. The choreography by Mandy Moore is inspired and the songs with music by Team-Chazelle regular, Justin Hurwitz, and lyrics by BenjPasek and Justin Paul are worthy of the heritage they aim to recreate.
Despite the title La La Land is not just a light and frothy musical. In amongst the glorious imagery and beautiful production design it has something very thoughtful to say about the trade-offs we sometimes make between our hearts and our heads – between our aspirations for what we want to do with our lives and our commitment to those we find ourselves in love with. Oddly, it’s in the darker, middle part of the film where these things are explored that the songs drop away for a time. I’m not sure why that is but there’s a point at which you realise that no-one’s burst into song for a while and that the film has become more of a drama. That doesn’t last for long, and we’re soon back into musical mode with the excruciatingly beautiful audition song from Stone and the highly stylized, highly-fantasized end sequence that is so reminiscent of Gene Kelly’s work that it’s uncanny.
Chazelle is rapidly proving himself to be a very fine filmmaker, carving out a reputation for movies that owe as much to their music as they do to the other filmic elements. I’m now on the hunt for his first film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009) a jazz-tap musical. To date I’ve only managed to find the trailer on Youtube (well worth the minute and twenty seconds it takes to watch) but with the imminent success of La La Land, I fully expect a retrospective screening in the very near future.