The fingerprints of old Hollywood are all over La La Land, an intoxicating film that revives the glamour and romance of golden era MGM musicals in what is at times pure homage.
Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) is working in a coffee shop on a studio lot in Los Angeles, taking auditions and rejections by the Grande cupful while sleeping beneath giant portraits of the goddesses of cinema past.
Her path crosses with that of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) a sombre jazz pianist stuck playing Jingle Bells at the local bar while dreaming of opening his own place and saving the music he loves from popular decline.
The pair fall in love, but as Seb’s career takes off and he is pulled away on tour with a successful band led by old sparring partner Keith (John Legend) their relationship strains. Meanwhile, Mia’s self-penned one woman play opens to empty seats and she begins to turn her back on Hollywood and her dreams of making it in the movies.
Writer, director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) retails exquisite Hollywood reverie with La La Land, a movie bursting with heart and charm but tempered by a bittersweet melancholy.
The whole thing seems to have been filmed in perpetual twilight with LA’s plum skies framing our two lovers as they fall for each other in the city of dreams.
La La Land’s opening sequence is a one long, single take of pure ecstasy that joins hundreds of commuters stuck on the freeway in a song and dance spectacular reminiscent of Fame. But while this is an impressive set piece that of the sort that hasn’t been seen for years on the big screen, it sets the movie up for a tone and an energy that it then doesn’t really deliver.
Chazelle dreams, but he doesn’t dream in big song and dance numbers. Instead the movie turns inwards after its first two choreographed one-shots and lingers intimately on its two stars.
Stone acts her socks off as she attends audition after audition, giving us a glimpse into the fixed-smile brutality of trying to make it in Hollywood. Two of her tests, which see her turning on emotions like water from a tap, are deserving of an Oscar in their own right (and we think she might be clutching it soon enough).
Although the movie is set in the modern era, Chazelle deftly mixes old and new while walking the line of timelessness. References to classic studio musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris are laced throughout and are a clear source of inspiration for Chazelle; small wonder given the cast apparently spent a day with Gene Kelly’s widow in preparation for the shoot.
But, while La La Land is undeniably an excellent film, it doesn’t quite hurdle the barrier to greatness and the problem, such as it is, lies in tone. We open with a bang and a spectacle that puts expectations through the roof, but end with a wimper. This is less a musical, more a movie that loves music.
Chazelle reportedly wrote the ending to the movie first and worked backwards. He also claims to have put editing the final section of the film among his earliest cutting room tasks.
I say this because it explains why the ending of the film doesn’t fit the intoxicating, romantic affair that comes before.
For me, you can’t start with a huge musical number, have your star-crossed lovers literally dance among the stars at the observatory and [SPOILER] then not have them end up happily ever after. It feels like a kick in the teeth.
What makes this movie excellent, however, is the fact that I felt the heartbreak in the pit of my stomach – and that I can’t stop thinking about all of it.
Final word: Like an old love letter rediscovered years later, La La Land is filled with a curious mix of joy and melancholy underlined by a warming sense of nostalgia. The movie’s ending aside, this is a wonderful, intoxicating romance that feels timeless. A must see.
If you liked La La Land, you should also watch:
- Singin’ in the Rain
- Crazy Stupid Love
- Moulin Rouge!
- Hail, Caesar!