Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt
Runtime: 128 Minutes
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash acted as something of a mission statement regarding his intentions in the medium of cinema. A drummer and lover of jazz, he seeks to bring to cinemas visual spectrum the layered compromise of music through the dictation of organised imagery, the flow of narrative and the charted arcs of his characters journeys. La La Land is Chazelle’s love letter to the musical genre, and what is so startling is that he has somehow managed to bring the classic musical of the mid-20th-century singing and dancing into the modern world.
For instance, the sweeping opening song is a celebration of individual dreams in a glorious ode to the city of angels, which happens to unfold on a gridlocked stretch of highway during rush-hour. This near-perfect marriage of the old and new worlds charts the balancing act that has been accomplished between the magic of dreams and the blunt cruelties of reality; the ‘reality’ represented by the near constant interference of modernity that invades the pastiche, retrograde sensibilities of the film's visual and aural structure. Mobile phones ring out, car horns blast and in a single moment the spell is broken, but with good reason.
The core relationship between hip Jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress and barrister Mia (Emma Stone) is a hopelessly romantic endeavour that we are immediately swept up in. It takes its time to get there, as building a meaningful relationship is never quite as easy as the prospect of falling in love at first sight. This seeping authenticity isn’t just apparent in the naturally charismatic dialogues and intense chemistry that the two leads share, but an undercutting theme of the entire enterprise. Life is messy, it isn’t a fairytale, there’s a disparity between stability and “selling out”, and sometimes the idealism of the lives that we wish to lead must take a backseat when compromise is required to reach our dreams.
The performances from both leads are just exquisite; Stone delivers some of her most emotionally grounded work, while Gosling continues to prove himself as one of the most underrated comedy actors currently working. The fact that neither of them are exceptionally excellent dancers or singers only accentuates the film’s state of realism. There are supporting turns from the likes of John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt and J. K. Simmons, but they don’t really register as characters as much as figures to reinforce the narrative, with the actors informing their roles through presence alone.
Chazelle is at the absolute peak of his power here. His command over not only the staging of the elaborate musical numbers, but basic sequences of calm exposition and character growth, is nothing short of astonishing. Changing shooting techniques on a whim to cater to distinct emotion, he relaxes into long single takes for comforting stretches, and his work with Editor Tom Cross continues to produce films of taut creation and incredible visual power. The cuts here can be so powerful, with a flow so energetic and upbeat it’s impossible not to fall into its fevered state of vigour.
The music by Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Pasek and Paul, is amazing in sound and construction. It's traditional whimsy enchanted with purpose, retrograde liveliness and focus, likely to be revisited time and time again. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is just as striking; shot in CinemaScope and emulating all the optical beauty of MGM’s spectacular productions with a bold colour pallet and the weight of age and celluloid. Keeping the action grounded, the numbers are performed in real locations with an impression of raw spontaneity that replicates its inspirational older siblings in the genre through subtle nods and delicate homage – only fully embracing its acknowledged heritage in its perfect, transcendent and overwhelmingly beautiful climax.
It's a bold claim to make, but La La Land might be the finest musical of the 21st century to date. Chazelle’s work here solidifies him as one of the most arresting filmmakers currently working in American cinema; it’s a tight and elegant piece of light storytelling with a great deal of heart and soul. So earnest in approach, so conscious in understanding and so hilariously and pleasingly genuine – this is one of the year’s most joyful experiences.