Released: January 2017
If you love a musical, and pine for the days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers toe-tapping across the boards, La La Land is clearly for you. You don’t need to keep reading, go and see it and swoon and sigh with every song and heel-turn. For anyone less keen on jazzy numbers and song and dance breaking into the script, is it still worth a view? It’s certainly getting rave reviews across the board, but is that possibly because critics are all of a breed that love “Film” as a concept and have been longing for a classic, nostalgia-filled romp through a romanticised Hollywood heyday?
While the film is ostensibly about the meeting and possible future of new couple Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), jazz pianist and romantic, and Mia (Emma Stone), wannabee actress and girl with Hollywood history in her heart, it’s really a film about ambition, fear, compromise, regret and loss. What counts as hard work while waiting for your big break and what counts as giving up on your dream? When is fear just nerves and when is it the deep seated acknowledgement that you aren’t good enough? How many detours can you justify en-route to your end goal? Is the love of one person worth more than the one thing you’ve always wanted in life?
It is a fun film, there is no doubting that, but it’s not all light and happiness, and avoids being too sickly sweet, despite some beautiful depictions of first date excitement. There are a hundred nods to past films and stars that have made the concept of La La Land possible, from a sparkling Fred and Ginger homage, complete with “I’d never fall for you” lyrics to prove how right for each other they are, to a few refrains from Casablanca edging into the music to a full recreation of a scene from Rebel Without A Cause. But I don’t think you need to be able to pick up on these nods, though some of them are so heavy handed you’d be pressed not to do so, to be able to enjoy the general 50’s ambiance that flows through the film. They even manage to live in a modern world we know has mobile phones and not let the newly loved up couples use them, causing them to meet up unexpectedly, be kept waiting without explanation from the latecomer and have to drive hours out of their way to make the plot work. In other films this would be infuriating, but in La La Land it just feels so right, and makes you miss the inconvenient days of pre-instant communication.
The songs are not memorable ballads. You won’t find yourself singing many of them as you dance round the house, but they fit the show so perfectly. Chazelle has again teamed up with Justin Hurwitz, composer for his two previous jazz-infused films Whiplash and Guy And Madeleine On A Park Bench, and he finds the right tone every time. From freewheeling expressionism in the jazz clubs that Sebastian haunts to the awful jaunty carols he is forced to play to make ends meet, every note makes certain you know what you are meant to feel at this point in the film. Seastian’s main song City of Stars starts so slow and melancholic it sounds like Gosling’s own band Dead Man’s Bones before lifting into a sweet and simple duet, matching both leads voices.
This is a film for more than just musical lovers. It’s not for people who hate a musical, however many people rave about it or how many awards it wins, but it has a very broad appeal, with it’s secondary story of how imperfect human streaks taint the beautiful Hollywood story that we know can never be real, however much we dream about it.