Starring: Ryan Gosling (Drive), Emma Stone (Zombieland), John Legend (Soul Men), Rosemarie DeWitt (The Watch), Finn Wittrock (The Big Short), J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man)
Writer/Director: Damien Chazelle (Whiplash)
Runtime: 2 hours 8 minutes
Release Date: 9 December (US), 13 January (UK)
The traditional movie musical has been dead for a long time. We have plenty of animated Disney films and adaptations of stage shows, but rarely do we see an original musical done on the scale of the golden age of cinema. Tastes have changed considerably since those times, but after so many other trends and ideas have been revived to varying success over the years it’s a surprise it took this long for someone to take another shot at one of Hollywood’s traditional genres. However, though La La Land does take most of its inspiration from films of old, it uses those tropes to tell a very modern story that deconstructs the musical genre, show business and the psyche of the modern dreamer all in one unique motion picture.
The love story is almost always the central dynamic of a movie musical, and La La Land follows suit but through a contemporary and honest lens. They don’t fall in love at first sight, they vent and argue like normal people do, and they don’t act drastically melodramatic about their every emotion. Everything feels genuine and true to life, even somehow when they do break into song-and-dance. The plot plays like A Star is Born but in the cynical, vapid world of modern Los Angeles, with our protagonists not only struggling with their own dreams but also trying to convince an apathetic industry to care. The film doesn’t take a totally cynical approach, sprinkling in a lot of the fun and artistry of show business, but it doesn’t make the road to stardom fanciful or miraculous like a traditional musical would. It’s a film equally in love with film and music but also frustrated with all the seemingly unnecessary hardship that comes with that love.
This candid tone is brought to a fantastic conclusion in the film’s closing moments, which subverts all expectations of the genre but still feels like the only satisfying ending this story could have; anything else would feel too saccharine or too pessimistic. And yet even when La La Land plunges into the saddening truths of the search for fame, it never stops being a joy to watch. The story is constructed elegantly, it moves at a punchy pace, and there isn’t a moment that feels wasted or unnecessary. It’s a solidly entertaining ride throughout the first two thirds, but it’s that ending that pushes it over the edge from a good movie to a great one.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone already proved they have wonderful chemistry together in both Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad (more so the former than the latter), but La La Land will most likely end up being the iconic film of this on-screen couple and deservedly so. There isn’t an iota of this relationship that falls flat, and that’s mainly because there’s never a moment where they feel dishonest. Though the movie treats their courtship like a traditional musical romance on an aesthetic level, their words and actions and emotions feel like those of a real couple in this situation. Their frustrations are relatable, their flaws are incredibly apparent, and though you’ll never question whether these two are in love there is the question as to whether they should be. Gosling and Stone compliment and balance each other out perfectly, never letting one outshine the other for too long, and they captivate for the vast majority of the film’s lengthy run. The supporting cast is surprisingly minimal in presence, especially J.K. Simmons in what amounts to an extended cameo, which is somewhat disappointing but it’s no major problem. Gosling and Stone more than carry the film themselves, and the rest of the cast serve their purpose perfectly fine, so I’d call it less of a flaw and more like an overlooked opportunity.
La La Land pulls a great magic trick by managing to recreate the style of a 1950s Hollywood musical whilst not completely sugarcoating its contemporary California setting. The film of course shows iconic locales like the studio lot or the Griffith Observatory through rose-tinted lenses, but it also does the same for the less glamorous sides of the city and manages to make them look enticing without losing their grit. The cinematography is full of bright saturated colours and warm lighting to give it that nostalgic look, but it combines it with the rapid-fire editing of modern cinema to further cement the marriage between old and new. However, where La La Land doesn’t quite hit the landing is in a place where it matters most for a musical: the music. None of the songs are badly composed or lack passion, but they don’t immediately stick with you like the great musicals do; I can barely recall a single lyric. Luckily, the choreography of the numbers makes them memorable enough, especially the opening piece “Another Day of Sun” that makes a traffic jam on the freeway look like a cool place to be. But going down again, whilst Gosling and Stone shine from an acting standpoint, from a singing perspective they don’t exactly excel. Stone is more solidly consistent and manages to really shine in her final piece “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, but Gosling only just manages to be passable. He’s not distractingly off on a Russell Crowe or Pierce Brosnan level, but it’s abundantly clear he’s no professional singer.
La La Land is a wonderfully entertaining throwback film that respects the legacy it’s drawing from but keeps its eyes on the present, repurposing the magic of the traditional musical to tell a story for the lovers and dreamers of today. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s lead performances elevate the film to heights it couldn’t reach without them, and Damien Chazelle’s passionate direction brings to life a vision of modern show business that is equally mythical and truthful. It’s going to be a crowd-pleaser for sure and the awards circuit is going to eat up every bit of its nostalgic Hollywood sweetness, so definitely go see it before the critics really blow its accomplishments out of proportion. If the actual music was captivating throughout and the first two thirds were as dazzling and heartfelt as those final moments, this would easily be the best movie of the year. As it stands, it’s just a really damn great one.
FINAL VERDICT: 9/10