A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.
At the age of 31, Damien Chazelle has made quite the introduction, following up 2015’s outstanding (and our favourite of that year) ‘Whiplash’ with a musical inspired by the classics from Hollywood’s heyday. That musical is ‘La La Land’, the story of two dreamers who encounter one another against the backdrop of a nostalgia soaked Los Angeles. Those dreamers are Mia, an aspiring actress currently working as a barista at the Warner Bros lot, and Seb, a jazz pianist who bemoans the death of classic jazz as he struggles to maintain a steady job. Those characters are the only two of any consequence in the film, and they’re played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling who have developed such excellent chemistry in the past in good films such as ‘Crazy, Stupid Love’ and less good films such as ‘Gangster Squad’. That chemistry is retained and expanded upon and both actors create characters worth rooting for with a romance that grabs your attention.
It’s just as well because ‘La La Land’ does not start particularly well. The opening song and dance numbers don’t work nearly as well as I’d imagine they did when designed, with a mass opening on a crowded LA highway not really clicking into gear in particular. It doesn’t help that the songs at this stage are fairly poor and over produced, but fortunately once the film settles down to focus squarely on Mia and Seb, ‘La La Land’ gets into its groove and becomes a significantly better film. The overarching theme of the film is about chasing your dreams, and the lengths people go to, or should go to, in order to achieve those dreams. It’s particularly good at showing the pain and hurt at rejection through Emma Stone’s Mia (and Stone is truly excellent throughout), as well as Seb’s frustration as he contemplates abandoning his dreams for a steadier, but less exciting existence. That these plot developments unfold much as we’d expect them too isn’t a surprise, but the rich performances and Chazelle’s tight and focused direction make it all the more engaging.
‘La La Land’ is a musical and that phrase will either have you running for the hills or really excited, but I found ‘La La Land’ slightly disappointing as a musical. There are a couple of strong songs but nothing truly memorable and I felt the musical aspects were pretty disappointing, certainly compared with the films its paying homage too. Fortunately, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are terrific and they keep the film watchable at all times, doing most of the heavy lifting when most musicals follow the opposite approach, relying on the songs to elevate the material. The homages to the Golden Age of Hollywood and Classic Jazz are great, with a nice use of references, and the script provides several laughs (Gosling in particular has shown in the past year a particular talent for comedy with ‘The Nice Guys’ and ‘The Big Short’, and his reactions here are a highlight).
This is a fun film with a lot of heart, directed with a lightness of touch and with strong performances from its two leads, but I felt slightly let down by the musical numbers which never worked that well for me. This is a terrific romantic comedy, but in my opinion, it’s just an OK musical. It’ll be interesting to see what the film’s legacy is, whether it’ll initiate a new dawn for the musical or as I suspect, be viewed merely as an enjoyable throwback to a bygone era much like ‘The Artist’ did for the silent era a few years ago.
Directed By: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Tom Everett Scott, Meagen Fay, Damon Gupton, Jason Fuchs, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Callie Hernandez, Josh Pence and Anna Chazelle