This movie is just pure and utter bliss. Rarely do I walk out of the cinema feeling so upbeat, so joyous, so energized. I adored this movie. Like most movies pushing for the Oscars, in the UK this movie is a 2017 release and already it’s going to take some beating to dethrone this as my favourite movie of 2017.
Yes, that’s right, I’ve played my hand early in this review. I’ve also thrown down a gauntlet for all other movies this year and I’m very much hoping they will rise to the challenge. Will I regret making such a bold statement so early in the year? Somehow, I don’t think so.
The story is simple. Mia (Emma Stone) is an wannabe actress, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) wants to save jazz from the brink of extinction. In their struggle to find success in the City of Angels, they fall into each other arms. And there’s some singing and dancing along the way.
Damien Chazelle has made a masterpiece of a movie and, what’s more, it’s his second masterpiece in a row. Whiplash completely blew me away when I first saw it and continued to do so on subsequent viewings. What’s truly amazing about La La Land is not only that it is equal in quality to Whiplash, but that Chazelle has managed to make a film that’s so different to it’s predecessor. Yes, the themes that run through both movies are very similar; passion, dreams, determination, compromise, success, but the characters, the cinematography, the editing, the tone, practically everything apart from the themes are completely different. Whereas Whiplash is a movie of kinetic, frantic energy laced with intensity and tension that kept you on the edge of your seat, La La Land has this smooth, charming, almost arrogant swagger that just completely sucks you in.
Let’s start off with the leads. How many better pairings could you dream of in modern day Hollywood than Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone? I’m struggling to think of many. Forget about all the money this movie is going to make, if they could bottle up the chemistry that radiates between the two of them and sell it to the masses, they’d be richer beyond their wildest dreams.
Both of them seem to be just so effortlessly likable and charismatic. The key in a two handed romantic film is to make the audience fall in love with both characters simultaneously and in this movie it is really not that hard. The romance and charm is handled very well. In these kinds of movies it can be very easy to get a little too cutesy, which usually results in a sudden urge to spontaneously vomit. It can also be very easy to mishandle the romance and leave people wondering why the two leads have even fallen for each other in the first place. It’s a fine line to walk but in this movie it’s walked to perfection.
Also, just to note, Ryan Gosling, a man who has already been a part of a lot of great movies in his career, is currently on his hottest streak ever. The Big Short, to the Nice Guys, to this, and with Blade Runner 2049 coming up. He’s making his claim to being the best actor currently working in Hollywood. Although there is some fierce competition.
It is hard to not write a thousand words on how marvelous Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is but I’ll try to keep it short. There are so many long takes in this movie, which is extremely impressive when you consider how much choreography is going on in some of these long takes. Chazelle and Sandgren know precisely what they are doing with every single shot. Every cut in a movie should count, and in this movie, every cut does count. Yes, they are digitally blending some takes together in some sequences, such as the Freeway dance, but just look throughout the movie at how many times the camera just drifts around like a casual observer, instead of endless cutting and changing angle. This is the perfect kind of style for this movie, because it makes the audience feel like casual observers looking in on this fantasy.
And then there’s the lighting. Wow! I mean what else can you say, it truly is absolutely stunning. Some of the most intimate moments between Mia and Sebastian are brilliantly lit. A dance at magic hour in the Hollywood hills with the most stunning view behind them? Check. Gravity defying waltz in an observatory. Check. In particular some of the shots in the epilogue. The word beautiful does not do it true justice. The editing is also superb. Some magnificent transitions, perfectly timed with the music. The movie ticks along at a rather steady pace, without ever feeling like it’s slowing down. Something that could easily happen in a movie as jam packed as this.
Of course, being a musical, the whole film would sort of fall flat if the music was not amazing. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, it is! The songs have not left my head since I watched the movie. They have been on constant repeat ever since. They are so well written, so well performed, so well choreographed, and extremely well shot. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay the music in this film is that out of all the numbers in the film, it’s hard to find a weak link amongst them. Even the one song on the soundtrack that is supposed to be bland, generic pop is actually way better than most bland, generic pop music. The songs are consistently strong throughout and that is something that Justin Hurwitz, the composer, deserves special praise for. Most modern musical numbers feel like pop songs trying to disguise themselves as musical numbers but most of the numbers in this feel like true old school musical numbers. With some brilliant, witty and evocative lyrics and the up in the air song structures that usually separates musical numbers from more popular music.
The most notable thing about Chazelle’s script is it’s structure. I won’t go into specifics as it will spoil too much of the film, but on occasion it jumps back and forth in time to great effect. It makes some lovely surprise turns to keep you on your feet throughout, which is always a nice surprise in a movie. If the movie is taking you exactly where you expect every single time, then it isn’t doing its job properly. Add to that some pretty stellar dialogue, rich with humour and full of charisma and we’re on to a winner. The story is so well written and perfectly executed, I struggle to see how anybody could not care about these two characters and the paths they take throughout this movie.
As for the criticisms, well honestly I don’t have many. The movie isn’t perfect but it is outstanding in practically every category. Even potential criticisms I had during the film were quickly brushed away, as though Chazelle knew what the criticisms would be and was heading them off. Just when I was thinking that it was a little too convenient Mia and Sebastian kept running into each other, the movie through in a few lines of dialogue that made me laugh it off.
Maybe you could say Gosling and Stone are not the greatest singers in the world but just because you don’t have the greatest voice in the world does not mean you can’t sing. Our two leads both do an excellent job considering their range. Quite a bit has been made about their dancing, because it’s not as perfect as a Gene Kelly routine, but it’s so charming and fun that it really doesn’t matter. Plus it is actually very well choreographed and so it should be, they spent three months in rehearsal. To be criticizing Gosling for not being as good as dancer as Gene Kelly is like complaining that an amazing guitarist is not Jimi Hendrix.
I think that unfortunately, the narrative that builds up around a movie as it goes along the promotional tour trail can often prove to be detrimental. In this case I think the narrative that this movie is a return to the classic movie musicals of the 1940’s and 50’s has caused a slight backlash from people. Why? Well the answers simple, it isn’t a return. Yes it is paying homage to the old classic musicals but it’s also updating the musical, modernizing it.
For example, in the old musicals you don’t get the female lead giving the finger to the male lead. You don’t have the big kiss being interrupted by something completely random. In the old school musicals, you do not have the song and dance numbers out in real world locations like you do in this movie. As great as Singin’ in the Rain is, it is truly one of the all times greats, it is almost entirely filmed on closed, controlled film sets where they had as much time and freedom to film the numbers for as long as possible.This film knows that in modern movies we have the capability of pulling off things we could not over half a century ago. It is not content to just copy the classic musicals, it wants to push them into the modern era and beyond. This movie set itself a challenge to do something different with the musical and, in this regard, it succeeded.
In the current cinematic climate, where franchises and sequels are favoured more than ever over original ideas, it is very pleasing to see an original movie of this scale and caliber being made and supported. It took a lot of audacity for Chazelle to make this movie and a lot of faith from the studio to get it made. Both should be applauded.
The song “The Fools Who Dream” tells you exactly who this movie is perfect for – the Dreamers. But even though it is a movie for dreamers, and it consistently tells you to never give up on your dreams no matter how outlandish they might be, it almost continuously reminds you that your hopes are going to be stamped on at pretty much every turn and interval throughout life. Despite being such a joyous and delightful movie, it does also have a healthy dose of bite and cynicism. And it’s all the better for it.
Now if you excuse me, I’m off to the cinema to watch it again.