Upbeat film of the week: La La Land – a modern musical of stardust and blues

Damien Chazelle’s irresistibly fleet-footed reboot of the classical Hollywood musical makes earthy whimsy from a story of love versus creative dedication.

☞ Downbeat film of the week: Manchester by the Sea – a bracing portrait of grief in the round

Erika Balsom
Updated:

Spoiler alert: this review reveals a plot twist

A virtuosic long take of a traffic jam, shot in 35mm and rendered in bright Crayola colours? Nice try, cinephiles, but this is not Godard’s Weekend; it’s the opening sequence of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a retro musical with outstanding cinematography that proves Hollywood can do formidable spectacle without superheroes. The film follows Seb (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) through the seasons as they chase their respective dreams of opening a jazz club and becoming an actress. Jacques Demy, not Godard, is the tutor-text here, as Chazelle’s camera weaves and whips around a sun-soaked LA freeway, capturing commuters who have broken into song. La La Land remembers when movies were magical and fun, blending nostalgia and contemporaneity in a candy-sweet love letter to cinema.

Seb is stuck playing Christmas songs in a bad restaurant, complaining that his beloved jazz is “dying on the vine”, while Mia works as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot and frequents the audition circuit without luck. Each sees in the other the desire for something greater, and they fall in love.

Their story is a familiar one: it starts well enough under a wonderfully fake night sky, but real life gets in the way. When Seb achieves success, it is only in financial terms; he betrays his commitment to authenticity by joining a pop group. And to make matters worse, he misses Mia’s flop of a one-woman show. With their relationship and her career on the rocks, Mia leaves Los Angeles, only to be lured back for an audition with a casting agent who was one of the few people in the audience at her show.

La La Land (2016)

Surprisingly, La La Land is largely free of the intertextual in-jokes one might expect in such a cinephilic film, its Rebel Without a Cause reference aside. Rather, Chazelle concentrates on reviving a sensibility of innocence and romance well represented in film history but relatively absent from today’s CGI-addled multiplex fare. He toys with the familiar image of Los Angeles as soul-sucking – best encapsulated in Bertolt Brecht’s line that it is “the market where lies are bought” – but only in order to neutralise its power. La La Land asks us to truly empathise with Seb and Mia’s dreams of making it big, zero irony involved. Compared with the blank pastiche of films such as Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Chicago (2002), which approach the perils and promises of fame in a knowing play of surfaces, La La Land sentimentally resurrects the démodé genre of the musical for its wholesome hopefulness and choreographed joy. After postmodernism’s much-touted waning of affect, here sincerity is on the rise.

This charm is greatly abetted by the chemistry of Gosling and Stone, happily taking a much stronger turn than in their first two onscreen pairings, Crazy Stupid Love (2011) and Gangster Squad (2013). Both are super-cute, but neither is exceptionally skilled at singing or dancing. Arguably, this is precisely the point: unlike the untouchable, celestial stars of yesteryear, they are earthy and vulnerable, and all the more loveable for it. The impossible perfection of a Gene Kelly or Ginger Rogers gives way to 21st-century relatability.

Lest this sound too warm and fuzzy, it’s worth mentioning that beneath all the pizzazz, La La Land delivers what is ultimately a no-nonsense message of individualist drive. Professional success is what counts, no matter how you achieve it and no matter if a few hearts are broken along the way. When Seb and Mia part ways, it’s not out of a lack of feeling, but because their careers come first.

La La Land (2016)

Like Chazelle’s previous film Whiplash (2014), La La Land examines the compromises and sacrifices involved in the pursuit of creative ambition. But whereas Whiplash dwells on the abuse and pain that inhere in this enterprise, La La Land keeps it light. Its bittersweet ending, a coda set five years after the film’s main events, is undeniably a nod to Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), but Seb and Mia lead decidedly more glamorous and fulfilled lives than do Demy’s characters. She’s a famous actress; he owns a thriving club. Judging by the two of them, it pays to get paid and it pays to be yourself – either way, you end up on top. It’s love that gets left behind.

The concluding fantasy montage, filled with painted mattes and idealised romance, elevates the film to an even higher level of glorious artifice, but its proclaimed irreality signals that doubly happy endings, in which both the personal and the professional triumph, are possible only in fiction. This literal showstopper warns us not to ask to have it all. Sound depressing? Don’t despair: with its saccharine whimsy, La La Land reassures us that if we need to feel better, the movies are always there.

 

 

In the January 2017 issue of Sight & Sound

Dancing with the stars

Damien Chazelle’s bewitching musical La La Land, exploring the romance between two ambitious dreamers in modern-day Los Angeles, might be saturated in the style of its classic Hollywood forebears, but it never loses sight of where the genre might be headed next. By Pamela Hutchinson.

+

Motion slickness

There was always a little bit of the gangster about Gene Kelly, but it was precisely this tough guy persona that grabbed our attention, delighting us with just what a male body could do. By Dan Callahan.

 

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  • Sight & Sound: the January 2017 issue

    Sight & Sound: the January 2017 issue

    Damien Chazelle’s modern musical La La Land, and a new look at exemplary toe-tapper Gene Kelly. Plus Krzysztof Kieslowski, Issa Rae, Eugène...

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