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At one point in La La Land, John Legend’s character asks the question “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?”, and I couldn’t help wondering if the question had been asked of director Damien Chazelle when he first pitched this film. Chazelle has already proven himself a revolutionary with 2014’s excellent Whiplash, but with La La Land it seemed like he was asking too much of himself. How do you revolutionise with a film that is so heavily inspired by the great Hollywood musical traditions? How do you look to the future with a film so rooted in the past?
The answer lies in evolution rather than revolution. On the one hand, Chazelle stays true to the classics, and La La Land is a glorious flashback to a bygone era. But on the other hand, there is nothing derivative about it. It feels fresh and original, with one eye on the traditions of the past but the other firmly on the innovations of the present. It is the sort of magical moviegoing experience you don’t see enough of these days, with enough unapologetic romance and boundless optimism to turn every cynic into a romantic for an hour or two.
The movie starts with the song-and-dance number ‘Another Day of Sun’, which as opening scenes go is a pretty high bar. The dance sequence must involve over a hundred people, the whole thing is seemingly a single unbroken shot, and the piano melody will have you tapping your foot for weeks to come. It serves as the ice-breaker, ensuring that we are thoroughly on board before the main characters are even introduced. The central pair are Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian and Emma Stone’s Mia, both serving in menial jobs until their ‘big break’ comes along. He longs to reinvigorate the dying L.A. jazz scene; her dream is to find stardom in the acting world. A little encouragement from each other is all the catalyst they need to try and make those dreams into a reality.
The plot deals with the price of success and the struggle between dreams and compromise; the story is well-told and the characters likeable, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here for a show, and boy does La La Land deliver. I could discuss any number of delightful moments but there are a few which stick out particularly vividly in the memory. One is the duet ‘A Lovely Night’, in which Sebastian and Mia regret that a scenic view over the city is wasted on them, rather than two lovers who could better appreciate it. “We’ve stumbled on a view that’s tailor-made for two / What a shame those two are you and me”, sings Sebastian, and Mia responds in kind. It’s sweet, delicately flirtatious and the best example of Gosling and Stone’s electric chemistry.
For sheer cinematic magic though you can’t beat a scene in a planetarium in which the pair defy gravity and dance among the stars. In terms of childlike wonder in a realistic setting it reminded me of Mary Poppins, except of course ‘Jolly Holiday’ didn’t end with Mary planting one on Bert the Chimneysweep, more’s the pity. The planetarium scene is not only a triumph of imagination visually but also the pinnacle of Justin Hurwitz’ score, although there’s also a haunting piano riff which recurs several times in the movie at key moments in Sebastian and Mia’s relationship. The melody gathers emotional weight with each outing, so that when it plays at the finale it serves as a cue to get the water works flowing. It’s quite impressive when a couple of notes you first heard just two hours earlier can have that much of an impact.
Three of the four musical numbers I’ve alluded to so far are instrumental only, and that’s telling. Though I liked the songs, I think we might have to wait until the inevitable stage adaptation before they become true classics. Emma Stone’s voice has a wispy fragility about it which suits her character, but might grate if heard out of context. Ryan Gosling is a very competent singer but lacks the vocal range of a more seasoned Broadway star, and ‘City of Stars’ in particular is crying out for a touch more panache. Having said that, Stone and Gosling later duet on the same song and it suddenly seems elevated. Though they may have flaws when apart, they complement each other perfectly, and whether that was a deliberate move or not, it is the perfect metaphor for their romance.
You don’t need me to recommend La La Land when every critic and their dog has already done so. So let me try and sum this up some other way. La La Land does for movie musicals what The Artist did for silent films. It recalls a lost art and shines it up a bit while staying true to what made the genre great. The Artist has not inspired a new wave of silent films and likewise I don’t expect La La Land to herald a new golden age of musicals. And honestly, I hope it doesn’t. It is precisely because we haven’t seen anything like this for so long that it stands out from the crowd. And the longer we go without seeing another film like it, the more beloved it will become, I suspect.
La La Land is showing at the Dukes, Monday Week 12 – Thursday Week 13