Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Finn Wittrock, Amiée Conn, Terry Walters, J.K. Simmons
Runtime: 2 hrs 6 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Coarse Language)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 8 December 2016
Synopsis: Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) is struggling to make it within the big city. She meets cocky but charismatic jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and they soon fall in love, right in the heart of Los Angeles. As success mounts, the pair realises that the dreams they have worked so hard to maintain now threaten to tear them apart.
So goes the common refrain that Hollywood doesn’t make them like it used to, but ‘La La Land’ proves that when it puts its heart and mind to it, that grand old dame of moviemaking is still capable of the kind of glorious musicals with gorgeous primary colours and showstoppers the likes of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dancing in the dark. Written and directed by ‘Whiplash’s’ Damien Chazelle, this unabashed throwback musical is albeit an ambitious and risky project – for one, musicals have all but gone out of fashion; and for another, that bygone genre has had its fair share of haters who find it absolutely ridiculous that its performers would spontaneously burst into song and dance. To be sure, ‘La La Land’ is unlikely to win them over – nor for that matter, does it even try – but for those willing to suspend your disbelief to indulge in pure movie magic, there is plenty to love about this boy-meets-girl story set in modern-day Los Angeles.
The romance revolves around wannabe actress Mia (Emma Stone), who works on the Warner Bros studio lot as a barista in between frustrating auditions, and struggling jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), whose passion for the music fuels his strident defense of the tradition of Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong as well as his disdain for Christmas standards or 1980s New Wave-pop. In classic screwball fashion, their relationship is characterized by early animosity, arising from a blast of road rage (consisting of a honked horn and a flipped bird) and a curt brief encounter following Sebastian’s dismissal from his regular gig at a swanky restaurant whose owner’s (J.K. Simmons) only request is that he keep his playlist to treacly Christmas carols. Yet a powerful mutual attraction soon develops between the pair who find themselves drawn to each other’s respective passion, such that Sebastian encourages Mia to write her own role that would be deserving of her acting talent and Mia brings Sebastian one step closer to realizing his dream of setting up his own jazz club.
Using the passage of the seasons, ‘La La Land’ intertwines their head-over-heels romance with their professional ups and downs, suggesting that their love may never be divorced from their personal aspirations. And indeed, that turning point comes with Sebastian’s decision to join his old university friend Keith’s (John Legend) jazz-rock band – not only is she confused why Sebastian would ‘sell out’ on his ideals by being a part of such music, Mia is furious when Sebastian chides her for not going on tour with him and the band to Boise two weeks before her solo play. If it isn’t apparent before, the film’s third and last act lays bare the real tension at play here – that between ambition and love, between the uncompromising pursuit of one’s own dream and the sacrifices either one party must make in order for their relationship to endure. It is also clear by this point that Chazelle’s inspiration is less so the razzle-dazzle of the MGM classics but the bittersweet French numbers from the likes of Vincente Minnelli and Jacques Demy.
That we so zealously root for Mia and Sebastian is testament to the sparkling chemistry between Stone and Gosling in their third on-screen collaboration (following ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’ and ‘Gangster Squad’), who as a duo are close to perfection. Their first duet ‘A Lovely Night’ atop a lookout over Los Angeles against the twinkling lights and violet sky is simply enchanting – even if neither actor has powerhouse vocals or Astaire-Rogers dance moves, such is their rapport that there is plain delight watching them flirt playfully with each other. A subsequent date sees them on a gravity-defying tango in the Griffith Observatory (following a screening of ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ that dies halfway), giving way to an Impressionist fantasia. Amidst these bewitching sequences, a number of quieter duets shine through – in particular, the minor-key piano ballad ‘City of Stars’, in which both take turns to sing about their unfulfilled dreams and big-city solitude that binds them in circumstance, is deeply affecting.
With his regular composer Justin Hurwitz, lyricists Pasek and Paul and choreographer Mandy Moore, Chazelle gives his film a sweeping yet intimate nature, going from a traffic-stopping overture in the middle of a jam on a Los Angeles freeway (with cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camera giving the impression of a single virtuosic take) to wistful ballads that arguably are the film’s earworms. Though some of the earlier numbers are more technically elaborate than transporting, Chazelle’s staging is impeccable – and the same can be said of Stone and Gosling. Between the two however, it is Stone who makes a deeper impression; at once raw, honest and yet brimming with warmth, her heartfelt performance cuts through the shimmering layers of artifice, expressing keenly her character’s hopes, frustrations and disappointments as much in her relationship as in her art. Whereas, Gosling is all sly ‘wink-wink’ charm, and there is arguably less conviction in his portrayal of an artist devoted to his ideals than as the dreamy lover to Mia.
Though it starts off exuberant and jaunty, ‘La La Land’ finds greater resonance as it settles into a more contemplative and ruminative mood, reflecting on the tough, and sometimes crushing, compromises that following one’s dreams requires. It is a theme that Chazelle expounded on in ‘Whiplash’, and he does likewise with even greater resonance here, especially with a coda which combines flashbacks, flash-forwards, dream sequences and multiple musical reprises into a dazzling time-spanning montage simultaneously pleasing and bittersweet. There is such imagination, craft and emotion in the last 15 minutes that unfolds like a musical within a musical, and illuminates the contrast between the happily-ever-after we so yearn for in the movies and reality itself. Even more so for our two protagonists chasing their respective dreams in ‘La La Land’, the dissonance hits even harder and more poignantly. Get ready to smile, cheer, dance and cry too, for ‘La La Land’ gives plenty of reason to do all that.
(By turns exuberant, romantic and bittersweet, ‘La La Land’ is as much an ode to the bygone era of Hollywood musicals as it is a poignant rumination on the tension between chasing one’s dreams and following one’s heart)
Review by Gabriel Chong