16 December 2016

"It's Another Day of Sun" — La La Land Review

Despite the great acclaim it has been getting, I wanted to dislike Damien Chazelle's latest film La La Land. I am not, I should note, a great fan of musicals and the opening scene in which an epic traffic jam turns into an upbeat spectacle as drivers clad in colourful clothes leap out of their cars and sing and dance as they celebrate another day of sun in Los Angeles. Suffice to say that it grated.

Image ©La La Land
La La Land is a classic boy-meets-girl tale in which barista/actress Mia (Emma Stone) and musician-for-high/would-be jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) struggle to balance their budding careers with their nascent romance. The story itself isn't terribly original and yet before long, it had won me over — round about the time Sebastian grudgingly plays Take on Me in an '80s-style band at a party (for the A-Ha song is, surprisingly, my Achilles heel).

Part of the reason the film is such a pleasure to watch is the chemistry between Stone and Gosling. The scenes that they share are mesmerising, their exchanges charming but with enough just enough punch, although both individual performances are also strong. Stone's Mia, in particular, begins as something of a cliché or a cipher — she reminded me a lot of Betty in David Lynch's wonderful Mulholland Dr. (which would make a good double-bill with La La Land), from the giant Ingrid Bergman poster next to her bed and her love of Paris to her cheery optimism. As the film progresses and cynicism and self-doubt begin to set in after more and more auditions end poorly, she becomes at least somewhat more like Diane.

Sebastian too struggles with his dream of opening a jazz bar on the site of a samba/tapas joint that infuriates him ("pick one!"). Instead, he is forced to take gigs playing Christmas music in restaurants to an audience of indifferent diners until someone from his past makes him a tempting and potentially life-changing offer — one that may force him to choose between Mia and his career.

In musicals, I often find myself wishing the songs would end and that we will get back to the plot. This wasn't the case with La La Land and indeed, I was unable to get one of the songs — the beautiful, haunting City of Stars — out of my head for over a week after seeing the film. Although I wasn't quite sure that the few Sliding Doors-like moments worked perfectly, I did enjoy the movie's seasonal structure — the joke being that every season looks the same in LA.

La La Land is escapism, pure and simple. Chazelle has captured a relentlessly joyful, technicolour version of LA that harks back to a golden age of cinema and indeed of the United States. Without wishing to get too political, I should probably note that I saw the film at a preview last month on the night before the US election and it felt comforting and uplifting. I suspect, however, that if I had watched it two nights later, I might have had less patience for its cheery blend of optimism and nostalgia. Nonetheless, if La La Land can win over a cynical musical-skeptic like me, it's a strong sign that Damien Chazelle has created an extraordinary film, as is the suite of Golden Globe nominations it earned earlier this week.

La La Land is out now in US cinemas and will be released in the UK on 13 January 2017.

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