I really like musicals. But I’m always wary of new ones. And despite Damien Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash, being a favourite of mine and a terrific movie, I had my doubts when it was announced that La La Land, his next feature as writer-director, would be a musical. And when I watched the movie open with a musical number, my fears were in full swing…
La La Land opens in standstill traffic on a Los Angeles (L.A. – see what they did there?) highway. A girl starts singing, gets out of her car, and more and more commuters (including skaters, cyclists and freerunners) start joining in on a large, extravagant song-and-dance number. But while the song is a general tone-setter that introduces the world, what worries me immediately is that the song is too complicated and intricate to easily follow. It has a jazzy quality and lacks the Disney-like simplicity and earworm qualities that are often associated with musicals or musical numbers in movies like Frozen.
After the first song, however, the movie turns into a lovely, charming, and beautiful celebration of movies, music, love, life, and dreams, which often reminds of classics like Singing in the Rain. It’s not only a loveletter to classic Hollywood musicals, but also a film about being in love with a person, a city, and a potential future.
The movie introduces our main characters (at first, stuck in the above mentioned traffic): Ryan Gosling is a passionate jazz pianist who is forced by his employer to play simple songs instead of his flashy favourites, and Emma Stone portrays Mia Dolan – an aspiring actress and barista at the coffee shop on a movie studio lot, who’s getting close to giving up her dreams.
They meet, fall in love, and start pushing, supporting, and inspiring each other’s ambitions. Ryan’s Sebastian dreams of opening his own jazz club – for the love of music, instead of simply aiming to make money. And Mia needs support to keep chasing her dreams. But with their heads in the titular clouds, they might get in their own way.
“La La Land”, of course, also refers to being out of touch with reality. Which the two main characters can very much be accused of being. They go back and forth between missing the point of their current situation, and being delusionally positive about their ambitions. They live in tough, melancholy-inducing times, all the while being extremely likeable and charming dreamers.
The movie had me hooked all along. The actors’ portrayals are extremely likeable, and both characters’ motivations are understandable, making them easy to relate to and realistic. On top of that, the film is beautifully shot, designed and coloured – like dreamlike, hyper-real paintings that portray an idealised version of life. But there’s enough gritty reality too – this isn’t High School Musical. It’s a beautiful, sincere, and stirring film, brought to life by a stellar cast and a director that proves he’s at the very least a two-trick pony (I can’t wait to see what he makes next). It’s a tribute to shiny, brightly-coloured and perfectly choreographed classic Hollywood musical, but with realistic modern characterisation. It’s sweet, delightful, and just the right amount of catchy, just the way classic Hollywood musicals should be – cause that’s exactly what La La Land is.
La La Land is a new film directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) and starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. See it at cinemas now.