La La Land looks set to sweep the board at the Oscars, but is this tale of a jazz pianist falling for an aspiring actress as good as everyone says it is?
Trying to express my feelings towards La La Land is like once again being a teenager and trying to talk to an attractive girl. Every time I think I have found the perfect words, they slip away from me and I am left a babbling mess; my poorly scripted poetry failing to convey the grand, sweeping emotion of my declaration of love. But, we learn as we get older; we learn it is often easier to say things simply. However, La La Land seems to defy this, bringing out the lovelorn teenager in me once more.
This is the second feature film of Whiplash director, Damien Chazelle, whose small film about a jazz drummer took everyone by surprise in 2014 and could have quite easily won Best Picture at that year’s Oscars. Given a bigger budget to play with he has taken it upon himself to make a modern version of the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s.
Bringing the story firmly into the 21st century, La La Land focuses on the budding love between an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) and an aspiring pianist (Ryan Gosling), who are both trying to make their name in Hollywood.
Now, if you are not an all-singing, all-dancing showtune lover then you may struggle to get into La La Land, but I would beg you to give it a go. Chazelle is smart enough to subvert some of the tropes and sincere enough to make the cheesier moments hit you like a tonne of bricks. For those who are already sold on this genre you are in for a treat: the songs are incredible, the choreography carries all the dynamism and force of Whiplash and there is even a tap dancing scene. That should be enough to leave a warm and fuzzy feeling in even the most hardened of hearts.
“Enough to leave a warm and fuzzy feeling in even the most hardened of hearts”
None of this would matter if the performances were not up to scratch, but the chemistry between Stone and Gosling is absolutely unreal. There is a connection between the two of them that practically sizzles. Stone plays to her strengths and imbues her character with a fierce determination – the natural charm and spirit an aspiring actress must acquire when picking herself up time and time again from the knocks of Hollywood.
Gosling is a revelation. While we know he can play sullen, moody men from his performances in Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines, it is definitely less well known that he might be in possession of the full canon of skills required to deliver a convincing lead in a mainstream musical. Wonder no more. He is at once charming, infuriating, and utterly committed to the role. His singing voice is not the sweetest, admittedly, but it is strong and earnest and that makes all the difference.
Linus Sandgren’s cinematography paints Los Angeles in a hue of bright oranges, yellows and reds, the sunlight and sheer joy of the city threatening to burst out of the screen. As does Justin Hurwitz’s fantastic score and the original compositions he made for the big musical numbers – throughout it is clear this is a film where everyone is working at the peak of their talents.
If there is a problem with the film, most are going to find it in the second act. Chazelle’s writing gets a little sloppy here and the film starts to repeat itself somewhat, but there is still so much good work going on that it does little to detract from the overall feel.
Its final musical montage stirred the same emotions as the famous ending of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988), in that it left me a shivering wreck of emotion. The final moments of La La Land are virtuosic filmmaking and a thing of utter, complete beauty.
It is rare in Hollywood for someone to tell a love story with such sincerity and warmth. There may be faults in La La Land but they do not detract. This is personal filmmaking that throws itself into its own idea of love so completely that you almost feel like you are intruding on something private.