It is not surprising to learn that this third feature from Damien Chazelle, and the follow-up to the award-winning Whiplash, is also garnering plenty of critical love because La La Land is like nothing we have seen for quite some time. Filled with song and dance numbers and many moments of mirth, this is a rollicking romantic musical that, whilst set in contemporary Los Angeles, is very much rooted in the past, both stylistically and conceptually. Whilst revelling in its reminiscences of a bygone era in Hollywood – the so-called Golden Age of studio production between the 1930’s and the end of the 1950‘s – the film is not so reverential in its representation of modern Hollywood, satirising the superficiality of the industry today. The film opens with a marvellous musical number that incorporates singing and dancing with elements of parkour and acrobatics, all seemingly captured in one shot, the camera sweeping over, around and between cars and the 100 dancers who perform in the scene. Even if there is a cut or two hidden in there somewhere, the sheer scale of the scene is remarkable and required the closing of a section of LA’s 105 freeway for an entire weekend.
It is during this elaborate opening that we meet Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), characters whose first interaction is nothing more than to flip the bird at one another as they negotiate their way through bumper-to-bumper traffic. Mia is an aspiring actress and playwright who works at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers studio lot whilst attending endless auditions. It is during these various audition scenes that Chazelle delivers a cynical take on modern Hollywood as Mia’s efforts are summarily dismissed by the arrogant power trippers on whose shoulders her aspirations rest. Sebastian is a pianist and jazz purist who is very particular about the music he listens to, the music he plays and where he plays it, except a lack of demand for traditional jazz sees him stoop to playing Christmas Carols in a restaurant and keyboards in an ‘80’s cover bend just to make ends meet.
Gosling and Stone have worked together on screen on two previous occasions (Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad) and their chemistry is a very large part of makes La La Land soar. When Mia and Sebastian encounter each other for a second time, the interaction is brief and hardly the type of moment likely to inspire romantic yearnings, yet they do fall in love and their romance is played out through a series of song-and-dance numbers. The fact that neither Stone nor Gosling are great singers only adds to the authenticity of these otherwise unrealistic moments, but the two performers compensate for any technical deficiencies with an abundance of charm. The songs composed by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are tender and catchy and lack the earnestness that has sometimes plagued more traditional musicals. In fact, there is a lot of humour throughout the piece that adds to the charm of these characters and their circumstances; the search for Mia’s car after a party in a street where every car is the identical hybrid model is particularly amusing given what it says about Hollywood types.
There are small roles for Rosemarie DeWitt as Sebastian’s sister and JK Simmons (who won an Academy Award for his role in Whiplash) as the restaurant owner who has no tolerance of Sebastian’s free jazz stylings. Whilst both have proven themselves great performers in a variety of productions, neither have much to do here as it is music star John Legend who has the most significant supporting role. Although the film soars on the back of the performances from the leads, the choreographers, costume designers and production design team have also played a huge role in making La La Land such a treat. The film looks as fabulous as it sounds, the screen bursting with colour and bristling with energy. La La Land is a bold, stylish, wholesome, highly original piece of cinematic joy that pays homage to a celebrated period in Hollywood history, whilst remaining very much embedded in a contemporary world, albeit one in which people spontaneously burst into song, and dance amongst the stars.