You would have to be living under a rock, in the middle of the Sahara Desert, in an era before mobile phones and the internet, to have not heard about La La Land. The posters, emblazoned with five-star reviews, cover the advertising boards at every tube station, its cast frequently pop up on talk shows and the film itself has been nominated for 14 Academy Awards.
Billed as a golden-age musical set in the modern era, with homages to classic movie musicals and two gorgeous leads, La La Land tells the story of jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) as they fight for professional and romantic success in sunny Los Angeles.
Near-universal critical praise of the film has inevitably triggered a backlash in recent weeks. Shots have been thrown at the vocal and dancing abilities of the leads, the unusual ending, the direction, and so on and so forth. By the time it came for me to see the film myself, I was fully ready to be underwhelmed.
Certainly, La La Land is different. It is unique – but it is most definitely not a disappointment. From the opening number featuring brightly dressed dancers, toe-tapping on the roofs of their cars, to the extraordinary closing sequence, La La Land is a musical triumph. Yet, it is a step away from the latest trajectory in musicals, which is perhaps where the backlash has begun.
There are beautifully choreographed dance sequences, performed capably by Gosling and Stone, and stunning cinematography, all of which encapsulate the joy and colour of musicals. Chazelle’s direction, frequently employing long takes, is skilled and compelling -certainly worthy of the Oscar – and the visuals are fitting, often feeling like they have been pulled straight off a Broadway stage.
The most unusual element is the singing. If you love a musical number with a mind-blowing belting vocalist then you will be disappointed by this film. The songs are understated and sometimes very simple yet this quiet quality only enhances their power. The hypnotic melody in ‘City of Stars’ is gently repeated at various points, each with their own significance and each time having a profound, emotional impact. Any greater effort, anything more than the sweet vocal efforts of Gosling and Stone, would be jarring in the context of this sweet love story.
There is no denying that the bright colours and traditional movie musical elements play a part in La La Land‘s success. Yet where the film is most accomplished and most beautiful is in the smaller moments, the quieter moments, all of which are pulled off with remarkable skill by Stone and Gosling. In their third cinematic outing together, the acting duo shine, bouncing off each other with a natural chemistry many actors would kill for. It’s no surprise they are both nominated for Academy Awards for their performances. Most impressive is Gosling’s piano accomplishments; a novice before his casting the actor performs all the music in the film with at least the appearance of someone who has been practicing the keys since birth.
La La Land is equal parts understated and exuberant. It has Broadway glitz and glamour but with a beautiful simplicity. Its an impossible mixture that somehow Chazelle managed to pull off. It may not be to everyone’s taste. It might not be your average musical but if you walk into the cinema with an open mind, I would place money on you being rewarded.