Every so often a film comes along that captures the public imagination and wows critics alike. Usually in the lead-up to the Oscars, critics and cinephiles have plenty to talk about but the public can be left cold. Between the music, the performances and the cute chemistry, LA LA LAND is a real crowd-pleaser and has a good chance to sweep at the Academy Awards (fourteen nominations – count ’em!). But does it deserve such acclaim?
Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and struggling jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) fall for each other after a chance encounter. How will they balance their blossoming relationship with professional struggles and successes in the vibrant but unforgiving city of Los Angeles?
Neither Stone or Gosling are born song and dance people, but they feel all the realer for it (or as real as you can be in a musical). I loved that you hear tap shoes scraping on tarmac as the couple begin to dance on their late-night journey home. It’s the little human flaws that make the movie, with Mia’s central solo song “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” making the most of Stone’s imperfect voice in heart-wrenching fashion. Gosling’s jazz piano playing is impressive, but no more so than a raw little scene which marks a turning point in the pair’s lives and relationship as they argue over dinner.
The musical numbers are dynamic and vibrant, the tunes themselves hummable even if most of the lyrics don’t stay with you after one viewing. The colourful and ambitious opening freeway traffic jam spectacular “Another Day of Sun” stands out, as do some of the more intimate ditties (“City of Stars”) with long and languid takes capturing these set pieces, made all the more impressive by utilising real locations rather than vast fabricated studio sets.
As well as the characters and what drives them are fleshed out, you do find yourself wishing that Mia’s career ups and downs were tracked as closely as Sebastians’s. The tried-and-tested formula of telling a story by seasons is used up to a point, before we flash forward by years to complete the tale without warning. We go into the studio with Seb and cover the most vapid aspects of his industry as he sells out for some success, but much of Mia’s story is told offscreen, which I thought was a shame.
The film really captures the soul-crushing cycle aspiring actors find themselves stuck in. Of course Mia works as a barista to make ends meet, and the showbiz party she and her housemates attend with the hope of being spotted is all glitz with a sickening undercurrent of seediness – just what will they have to put up with for an opportunity? Just how many young actresses have to degrade themselves for their big break, how many are flat-out ignored because they don’t tick enough boxes?
What La La Land also captures is that faltering, tentative phase of new love. Mia and Seb test the water and have fun before committing to anything serious, particularly in their flirtatious SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN-riffing first encounter, and everything is almost ended prematurely with the simple phrase “I hate jazz”. A lot of fun is had in referencing Classic Hollywood, though this can sometimes be overkill. Mia’s coffee shop is on a studio lot (because of course it is) and said studio lot and everything that is going on within it looks like prestige filmmaking hasn’t looked in 50 years. Studio filmmaking comes across as cruel, vampish and impersonal, independent auteurs with vision as shining lights of opportunity for well-intentioned and talented would-be actors (WHIPLASH director Damien Chazelle here polishing his halo).
The film takes us on three different paths through the story, zipping backwards and forwards and commenting on what might have been. You can have your dreams and you can have true love, but you’d be hard-pressed to have both. You can see why La La Land been embraced near-universally, even if it hasn’t quite bewitched me with its spell. It’s feelgood and soulful and witty in discussion of Hollywood’s favourite subject: itself. SSP