Monday 9 January 2017

Movie Review: La La Land (2016)

An original modern musical, La La Land is an instant masterpiece. Director and writer Damien Chazelle crafts a loving homage to the classic Hollywood musicals and the town that created them, and modernizes the genre by combining pragmatic sensibilities with an enthralling infusion of magic.

In Los Angeles, Mia (Emma Stone) is a fledgling actress still waiting for her big break. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist dreaming of opening his own jazz bar. Mia is getting disillusioned, working at a coffee shop on a studio lot, attending countless auditions and getting no callbacks. Sebastian is also getting despondent, playing bland tunes in featureless lounges to an uncaring audience.

Mia and Sebastian meet at a party and their relationship gets off to a rocky start, but gradually they fall in love and enter into a deep relationship. Their courtship includes a visit to the Griffith Observatory, inspired by the scene from Rebel Without A Cause. Sebastian's career seems to catch a break when band leader Keith (John Legend) invites him to be part of his emerging ensemble, combining jazz with a more modern pop and synthesizer sound. Meanwhile Mia attempts to write and perform a one-woman play. Sebastian's touring obligations take him further away from both Mia and his dream, while Mia has to decide if she will ever make it as an actress.

With an evocative music score by Justin Hurwitz, La La Land is a daring gem. A modern-day romance, grounded in the reality of careerism and a city that promises much only to deceive, set to original music and featuring song and dance numbers by actors not known for their singing and dancing, La La Land sounds like the farthest thing from an interesting film. Out of that premise Chazelle creates a magical experience, capturing the flighty charisma of the best Hollywood musicals but modernized for a world firmly rooted in pragmatism born out of disillusionment.

Mia and Sebastian have their limits, and have been kicked around enough. Having tasted too many false dawns both are now just as likely to pursue their dream as abandon it, Sebastian ready to sell out in pop land and Mia one bad audition away from retreating to her family home. Somewhere within the increasingly pessimistic milieu of dream chasing they have to maybe fit in a romance, love as another ethereal pursuit, either helping or hindering lifelong ambitions. The film's dogged tenacity in holding on to what defines success in a city that manufactures fantasies sets a unique platform for Mia and Sebastian, and from that skewed starting point Chazelle can and does take their couplehood in unexpected directions.

To set this story to music, Hurwitz fills the film with a catchy, show-stopping piano tuned for poignancy and playfulness. City of Stars is the signature tune, its title already hinting at the potential for competing objectives. Mia and Sebastian's Theme makes regular appearances and is an old fashioned tune dripping with irresistible melancholia, while Mia finds her voice, her purpose and salutes the people of her adopted city with the tender yet unforgettably resilient The Fools Who Dream.

Stylistically Chazelle insists on fluid, long and continuous takes, and old fashioned musical framing with Gosling and Stone always filmed full length when dancing. The film is saturated in colour, dark blues punctuated by yellows featuring prominently as La La Land celebrates a Los Angeles that lives by night and loves its stars.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone reunite for the third time after Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, and they enjoy an easy chemistry allowing them to mix squabbling with honesty in romance. Stone does the heavier lifting when it comes to acting, while Gosling gets away with just being himself but does throw in some well-timed comic mannerisms.

Chazelle bookends La La Land with two sequences of breathtaking majesty, both destined to be remembered for generations. The opening song and dance extravaganza on the freeway to the tune of Another Day In The Sun is 4 minutes of single-take wizardry, a celebratory number that sets the stage, introducing the city, the stars, the colour and the attitude.

Not satisfied with one scene for the history books, Chazelle just goes ahead and ends the film with a stupendous knock-out punch, an eight minute epilogue of heartbreaking imagined happiness holding hands with giddy sorrow, dreams fulfilled and lost, connections made only across the room, definitely within hearts, and in time eternal for two people. The audacity of the epilogue in echoing a re-imagined past, refusing to surrender to the obvious, and yet finding a uniquely satisfying conclusion within the context of a romance set in the land of fantasy elevates La La Land from a simply brilliant movie to a remarkable artistic achievement for the ages.

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