If you were to only watch the first and the last scene of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, you would be forgiven for thinking that they were from completely different films. The musical’s big-budget opening number, featuring smiley young commuters dancing on their car bonnets, is a stark contrast from the heartfelt and painfully realistic closing montage. After the success of 2014’s Whiplash, the innovative director returns with this stunning homage to a glorified, stylistic version of Los Angeles. The collaborative effort between director and stars is exceeded only by the chemistry between protagonists Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, reunited for the third time after Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad. Stone plays Mia, the wide-eyed wannabe actress who serves coffee to A-Listers at the Warner Bros film studio. She meets and falls in love with Gosling’s Sebastian, a passionate jazz pianist dreaming of opening his own club. Although the scenes involving holding hands in the cinema, and the highly anticipated first kiss aren’t exactly original, it is justified for the sheer joy that comes from watching them on screen. The couple gleefully tap dance their way through colourful movie sets – and at one point a planetarium that supposedly transports them to another galaxy – and if you’re a fan of Classical Hollywood cinema, there are intertextual references galore. Mia and Seb’s ‘will they/won’t they’ romance is entirely at the centre of the narrative (there is only really one other named character, John Legend’s Keith), but it is much more than an overtly sentimental love story with a predictable ending, though it easily could have been. Instead, the film sidesteps the romance and puts the theme of achieving your dreams at the forefront.
At times, it’s easy to forget which generation the film is set in, as the narrative gets so lost in its nostalgia for the Golden Age of Hollywood that it becomes a cliche of it. But part of the wonderfully self-reflexive nature of the film is that Chazelle is aware of this – Gosling swings around a lamppost a-la Gene Kelly, before a satirical phone ringing suddenly brings us out of the escapism that the beautiful cinematography entices you into. Many critics have made the comment that Gosling and Stone are not the best singers or dancers, but this seems irrelevant – the songs will stay with you for a long time, especially the somber ‘Mia and Sebastian’s theme’, which will probably make you tear up whenever you hear it. However, the musical genre becomes less of a central theme as the film goes on, and it turns into a gritty, very real message about love. But our attitude to the film also changes as we get deeper into their lives; so that when the heart wrenching ending delivers, it leaves you genuinely upset and wistful. It would have been extremely effortless for Chazelle to give viewers the conclusion that they hoped for the whole way through, but it is this rejection of just enough stereotyping and tropes, which makes the film so wonderfully unique.
It’s hard to think of a more beautifully shot film in recent years, bar from James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, perhaps. Every single shot of La La Land is like a painting, every camera movement executed with such creativity and skill, that it is easy to see why the six-minute opening number took two days to film. In her Golden Globe acceptance speech, Stone claims that Chazelle’s goal was to make “a modern original musical.. Sort of a crazy notion”. The film was definitely a risk, but one that paid off immensely.