Monday, October 10, 2016

Review: 'La La Land' (2016) directed by Damien Chazelle [LFF 2016]

Roughly halfway through Damien Chazelle's La La Land, Emma Stone's would-be actor Mia is fretting about her upcoming one woman show. "It just feels really nostalgic to me." "That's the point." Ryan Gosling's jazz pianist boyfriend Sebastian replies. "Are people going to like it?" she responds. He turns to her with that cooler-than-cool Gosling gaze and replies "Fuck 'em".

"Fuck 'em" indeed. It's a naked bit of self-examination from writer/director Damien Chazelle, who's perhaps understandably worried that the reason the big budget tap-dancing trad-musicals have all but disappeared from our screens is because nobody wants to see them. Sure, you get the odd (generally iffy) Broadway adaption here and there, but we're a long way from the days of Singin' in the Rain, West Side Story and My Fair Lady.

He needn't worry, La La Land is one of the most sure-fire critical and commercial darlings I've seen in a very, very long time. It's got two of the most bankable, adored stars in Hollywood being very funny, very sweet and dancing their socks off. It's got gorgeous faux Technicolor palette and full Cinemascope photography. It's got a script that, despite the sugar-coated trappings of the genre, manages to feel vividly real. It's got musical numbers so dazzling that, in an auditorium full of jaded film critics at the London Film Festival, the opening sequence received a spontaneous round of rapturous applause.

Set in what feels like a dream of contemporary Los Angeles, La La Land is the story of Mia and Sebastian's relationship over one perma-summery year. They first meet when cutting each other up on the freeway, Sebastian honking his horn and giving Mia the finger as he pulls past her. "What an asshole..." she mutters. But soon all too soon -  despite their protestations that they despise one another and there's absolutely no chemistry between them - they're falling in love.

What follows is admittedly cut from some pretty familiar cloth: their relationship grows, encounters problems and the two engage in some soul-searching about just what they mean to each other. But despite the familiar template this still surprises, serving up a romance that's simultaneously personal and universal, and one that concludes with an astonishingly effective emotional crescendo.

The ghosts of the golden age of Hollywood haunt these characters, looming in the background of scenes throughout, and at one point Chazelle stylishly and memorably mirrors an establishing shot from Rebel Without a Cause. But the film avoids outright fetishising old Hollywood, instead subjecting it to a mild critical examination via its most extroverted manifestation - the all singin' all dancin' musical. Though Gosling and Stone might tapdance their way down the streets like Astaire and Rogers, they're rooted firmly in 2016 - one of my favourite character touches is that the screen of Mia's iPhone 4S is cracked, an incidental detail that speaks volumes about her life.

Though crammed full of surface retro-stylings, the film consistently argues for innovation rather than slavish copying. The main vehicle for this is Gosling's Sebastian, who's initially obsessed with jazz dinosaurs and has an idea of musical purity lodged sometime in the 30s. It's only when he begins to experiment with form and removes the muso stick from up his own ass that he begins to loosen up and enjoy his art rather than merely appreciate it. Stone's Mia goes through a similar process, evolving from someone craving the approval of others to defining success in their own terms.

To convey all that while singing and dancing isn't going to be a picnic, but Chazelle simply couldn't have cast two better leads. Gosling in particular exudes a timeless style and poise, staring out from the screen with a hangdog yet confident expression that, appropriately enough, has more than a tinge of James Dean to it. He is every inch the moviestar, approaching every scene with grace and jaw-dropping cool. As a graduate of The Mickey Mouse Club it's no surprise that he can sing and dance, but few about these days could slide into a musical number so sleekly and naturally. Stone is also wonderful - the duo fizzing with refreshingly old-school chemistry.

I'd come to think that films like La La Land just couldn't get made anymore. These are insincere times, and this is a painfully sincere movie about two fools drifting in and out of love. It presents a gently loping, largely tension-free story without an atom of irony and resists the urge to insert vestigial elements like comedy best-friends and bitchy villains. It just is, functioning as a contemporary ideal of what the Hollywood studio machine once could (and amazingly, apparently still can) do best. 

Damien Chazelle was already sniffing at the big leagues with Whiplash. After La La Land he's going to be white-hot. I can't wait to see what he does next.


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