Arriving in UK cinemas less than a week after it swept every gong going at the Golden Globes, it’d be easy get carried away by all the hype surrounding La La Land. After all, this is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to the searing jazz thriller Whiplash, starring two of Hollywood’s most likeable actors in Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling; a film that has had critics doing summersaults over one another to tell you it’s this generation’s Casablanca. It must be really good, then. Right?
It’s certainly enticing. A fizzy extravaganza of catchy-yet-soulful ditties and exuberant dance numbers that’s coupled with two exquisite performances from its oh-so charming leads, La La Land dazzles in its early moments, but it runs out of energy long before the audience has even had time to get comfy in their seats.
Set in modern day Los Angeles, La La Land is clearly made with a nostalgic affection for the MGM musical tradition. Shot in retro CinemaScope on the sun-drenched backlots of Warner Bros. studios, the film oozes old school glamour and charm from its first fantastically orchestrated song-and-dance number on a gridlocked stretch of freeway to the classic tap dance routine across the Hollywood hills at sunset. Every single frame of this movie will have you itching to revisit the likes of Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon and The Young Girls of Rochefort.
While the style might be a throwback to a bygone era, the story itself is a thoroughly modern romance. An expansion of Chazelle’s student film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, it follows Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling), a failed actress and struggling jazz pianist chasing their dreams in the big city. The path of their relationship immediately subverts expectations as they flip each other the bird while passing on a freeway. When next they meet, in a dimly lit bar where Sebastian tinkles a mournful melody on his piano, convention states they should fall madly in love as soon as their eyes meet. Instead, Sebastian barges past Mia, frustrated at being fired once again for refusing to play the agreed set list.
When they do eventually fall into each other’s arms, culminating in a surprisingly sincere, gravity-defying dance among the stars at a local planetarium, the relationship is unexpectedly fleeting. Drawn together by their shared artistic failings, Mia and Sebastian are soon pulled apart when they again feel the tug of their creative ambitions. In the same way Whiplash was about much more than drumming, La La Land is not just a homage to Hollywood musicals: it’s a vibrant salute to those who dare to chase their dreams and the personal sacrifices they must make in order to achieve them.
That this tale feels more charming than bleak is at least in part due to the effortless chemistry of Stone and Gosling, playing an onscreen couple for the third time after Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad. Stone’s sweet, ambitious and vulnerable Mia is the perfect counterweight to Gosling’s cooly insecure Sebastian. They can even hold a tune pretty well, a fact that is frankly sickening when you consider the many other talents they also possess.
Yet charisma and good looks will only get you so far – yes, even in Hollywood – and La La Land struggles to sustain its early promise. Much like Whiplash had a bold new take on an established genre only to peter out toward the end, Chazelle’s sophomore effort blows through all its creative juices in the first act leaving the rest of the film to tread water for the remaining 90 minutes. It’s almost like Chazelle forgets he’s making a musical, creating something more akin to a movie trailer as scene after scene goes by without anything of note actually happening.
By the time the film’s bittersweet final moments arrive, you’ll be itching for the credits to role rather than being swept up in the passion, skill and considerable heart that must’ve gone into bringing this long-gestating project to the screen. Perhaps some dreams are better left unfulfilled.
Runtime: 128 mins approx
Screenwriter/Director: Damien Chazelle
Stars: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, J.K. Simmons, Rosemarie DeWitt
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