Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
Watch La La Land online in the UK: BBC iPlayer / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Jazz is dying. That’s what Damien Chazelle declared in Whiplash, a whip-smart, crash-bang-wallop of a movie that jumped around the screen with the energy of its soundtrack. It’s a sentiment that crops up again in La La Land, Chazelle’s ambitious, incredible follow-up. Daring to go much bigger than his debut, La La Land is an old-school musical in the best possible way, full of tap-dancing, a longing for fame and, most of all, a yearning for the golden days of cinema.
Emma Stone pops as Mia, an aspiring actress stuck working as a waitress, while Ryan Gosling shimmers (and shimmies) as Sebastian, a struggling pianist. Together, they’re so electric that you suspect Elon Musk had a hand in the screenplay – and it’s their falling-in-and-out affair that underpins the whole show, their failings of the heart echoing their professional flops.
Whiplash was all about getting the right tempo. La La Land is also driven by timing – that of two people whose lives are out of step. There’s a cool melancholy beneath the froth, quietly popping each excited bubble as it fizzes to the stunning surface. While Stone and Gosling tap their way along the Hollywood Hills, singing of not being attracted to one another, the swooning sting comes not in the fact that they’ll end up together, but the fact that they might not. These are characters in love with love as much as they’re enamoured with the movies – it’s subtly ironic that their most beautiful moment at Griffith Observatory only occurs because it’s copied from the big screen moments before. Even Sebastian’s snobbish attitude towards jazz is laced with satire, as John Legend turns up as a fellow musician with a much better understanding – and more profitable – take on how to evolve the genre for the modern day. The mansplaining Sebastian may claim jazz is dying, but Keith (and La La Land) is proof that it can still swing back into fashion with irresistible style.
Throughout every carefully choreographed set piece, Gosling and, in particular, Stone bring just enough charisma to make their relationship easy to root for, just as Chazelle brings enough old-school pizzazz to remind us how easy it is to dream fondly of things past. La La Land exists in that colourful limbo between reality and what these hopeful film-gazers want reality to be – the Hollywood Hills sequence glows with a backdrop that looks like a matte painting, but is entirely, bewitchingly real. A flashback montage of their memories together, meanwhile, is as magnificent as anything 1940s Hollywood could conjure – not just a masterful piece of editing, floating through sets and scenery like magic, but a demonstration of how well Chazelle understands the emotional power of music. He ricochets between notes with endless verve, before diving into mournful solos with blue lighting and pink hues.
Justin Hurwitz burst onto the stage with Whiplash’s score and confirms himself here as one of film music’s great new talents, with nostalgic-but-new songs, which recall the wit of 2012’s similarly self-aware indie musical How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song?. But it’s together that their work really sings – witness, open-mouthed, the six-minute single-take opener, with every car in sight in a traffic jam turned into dancing props. The duo have a clear passion for improvising trumpets, sweet saxophones and big band numbers, an underlying love that turns this and Whiplash into feature-length music videos in their own right.
Chazelle sashays his way towards a confidently bittersweet conclusion, one that recalls Whiplash’s meditation on personal sacrifice and professional success, but elevates it to a more thoughtful ode to the beauty of love, whether it’s for a person or a piece of art, and regardless of how things turn out. A romance about romance, it captures the rush of madness, the frustration of failed auditions, the foolishness of heartbreak, and that universal constant: the distraction, inspiration and enchantment of the movies. They don’t make them like that anymore, you may well say. That, of course, is exactly what La La Land wants you to think. Smiling through it, you’ll immediately want to do it again.
La La Land is available on BBC iPlayer until 25th March 2019.
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