Writer and director Damien Chazelle must really love jazz. His second feature Whiplash had jazz by the trumpet-load and his latest is a musical romance about a jazz musician and an aspiring actress. A musical in this day and age? What will they think of next?
The film opens on a big sweeping musical number. The camera floats around rows of cars in a traffic jam as their occupants burst out and join one another in song. There are bright colours, tightly choreographed dance moves, and even a band hidden in the back of a lorry. This is one big love song to old school musicals and a statement of intent for what is to follow. The opening number misleads in some ways as it raises expectations for a traditional musical plot that La La Land isn’t happy to settle for.
From that opening we meet our two protagonists: Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is that very same jazz musician; a man so in love with the genre he dreams of opening his own jazz joint one day. His love interest is Mia (Emma Stone), a desperately auditioning actress and part time barista who sleeps at night under a giant portrait of Katharine Hepburn. They both have big dreams that nobody else believes in and from the moment they meet the only people who can deny their chemistry is themselves. What follows is an incredibly charming romance replete with songs and dance numbers. Neither Stone nor Gosling are singers but work with what they have and sing gently rather than belting out showstoppers. Their dance moves are impeccable and my mind kept wandering back to memories of Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt dancing in a bank. The role of the well-rounded movie star is alive and well with this pairing.
Like all romance it isn’t all song and dance. As their relationship progresses Mia and Sebastian find themselves compromising on their dreams in order to be with each other. As the fairy tale starts to fade so do the songs and La La Land evolves from being a mere musical into something deeper. It it here that the film takes a risk as the razzmatazz is replaced with mundanity and doubt. For a period we are not in the colourful wonderland that opening song promised us but somewhere a lot less fun to be. I started to doubt the film at this point and thought it had gone off course; a valid try but not a triumph.
But then… Wow! That final section! The film pulls the rug from under you and throws all your emotions at you at once. In his last masterstroke Chazelle brings the whole film together with a flourish. What seemed to be a mistake became a necessity and La La Land, while not the film I thought it was, cemented itself as a modern musical classic. I’m still humming along now as I type.
For someone brought up on The Sound of Music and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers this was just what I needed.