A crowded California freeway, cars crawling along in the heat, and the camera swoops across the tableau to rest on a young woman listening to music in her car. She starts to sing. She gets out of the car, dancing as she sings. Others follow. Soon a chorus of drivers, all young, are performing on the Los Angeles flyover. Thus begins La La Land, and you wonder what you are in for.
I remember seeing those American musicals as a kid, and puzzling over them. How can someone just burst into song? Where does the music come from? How come others know all the words and join in? Aren’t they all just plain embarrassed to be prancing about like that in public? Now I can appreciate that it’s a genre, one that for decades appealed to millions around the world. Those musicals told of an innocent time, naïve perhaps, but they were an escape, and they were designed to make people happy.
So as that opening scene of La La Land unfolded I found myself unsure of what was to come, and a little concerned. Ok, the film was an homage to the musical, but was the whole time going to be taken up with singing and dancing and a candy floss plot? I didn’t think I was up for that, but what’s needed here is some patience. And patience, in this film, is rewarded.
Director Damien Chazelle takes the story of the relationship between aspiring young actress and writer Mia (Emma Stone) and aspiring jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling) and gives it a fresh, sassy, and very stylish 21st century look. He gets good use out of his cameras. Sometimes they whizzbang from one character to another, sometimes they conduct a slow swoop, and sometimes they linger. He uses colour and spotlighting, fading in and out, to highlight songs to great effect. He takes us on a journey from the make believe world of the musical to the real world of a relationship in such a way that for most of the film’s journey, you’re not quite sure what to expect, which can only be a good thing.
Chazelle also helmed a previous movie about music, 2014’s Whiplash, which was also about jazz. In that film he employed J.K.Simmons as a hard nosed music teacher (for which he won an Oscar) and Chazelle uses Simmons again here, in a not too dissimilar role.
And like Whiplash, La La Land’s protagonists are chasing an entertainer’s dreams: Mia to perform and write, and Seb to become a great jazz musician, run his own club, and stay true to the traditions of jazz music.
They meet (extremely comically) and fall in love and the film goes on to chart the tension between them meeting their dreams and meeting their responsibilities to each other.
And the old fashioned musical beginning to the film doesn’t really reappear. Seb and Mia have an Astaire and Rogers style coming together from time to time, but much of the latter part of the film deals with jazz, which Seb (and presumably Gosling) plays very well on the ivories.
The main reason I enjoyed the film was because of the performances of the two main actors. Both display a fine range of singing, dancing and acting skills. They are required to deal with both comic and serious scenes and do so with ease. Probably Stone has the biggest acting role to chomp into, as we see her pouring her heart into audition after audition. She radiates a smart and savvy aura but still a vulnerable one. Which is also true of Gosling as Seb. He still has the quiet cool he’s exhibited in other roles, but we see more of his character’s inner turmoil. There is a wonderfully scripted and acted argument between the two, and in the film’s final scene both give us a wonderful performance as they look at each other from across a room. No words, none needed.
La La Land is good because it surprises, and manages to be a tribute to a forgone style and a look ahead to what could be done with this style once more. It is a pastiche, and at times it went a little flat for me, perhaps as it moves from one style to another, but perhaps I felt that way because when it hit a high note, it struck it very high. Great performances, a clever script, and marvellously produced and directed. And, no violence, drugs, profanities, or sex, and very entertaining. Highly recommended. Oscar worthy? Reckon so.